How to Get Full Support from Top Management in Going Lean and Six Sigma With Sales And Marketing?

A reader recently asked…. 

“Tell the Lean Process Excellence Leader I’m busy.”

“Tell the Lean Process Excellence Leader I’m busy.”

How to get full support from top management in going Lean and Six Sigma with sales and marketing? What is the most difficult part of the change or where is expected to be the most resistant to the change?

This is a great question – and a complex one. Since you specifically asked about support from top management for Six Sigma in sales and marketing, let’s consider the layers of disconnects that make Six Sigma challenging for some top managers (and salespeople alike):

 The First Layer of Disconnect is Winning Their Hearts and Minds.

It is unfortunate that Six sigma is usually positioned as some kind of solution. (In fact lots of doctrines, like lean, your favorite sales training approach, and even sales process in general are presented this way.)  “Six Sigma will enable you to define, measure, analyze, improve and control your process.” This is good if you believe you need to define, measure, analyze, and so forth.

But if you don’t appreciate the need to do this, then what?  Couple this with the fact that – especially in sales and marketing – people are generally confused to begin with around what their problems, causes, and potential countermeasures are, and you have a difficult mix – the last thing the sales department needs.

For example: the problem isn’t that you haven’t applied lean six sigma. The problem is some kind of inability to make the sales quota (or grow the business) in the manner you desire. In most cases, the cause is unknown by definition because there is no consistent process, no operational definitions, no data. That is the first concept you have to sell. It may not be an easy one to sell, but you won’t win their hearts and minds without it.

Rather than present a doctrine first (as happens of often in Six Sigma and Lean), it is much better to work with executives to define their terms more carefully, like scientists, and show them how this helps them solve their problems. For example, its typical for executives to jump to conclusions when diagnosing sales problems. They are so used to having no data it feels normal to them. A sales VP will say “My salespeople spend too much time on the wrong accounts,” unaware that what they just said is a floating abstraction. They don’t know how powerful it is to process such terms as “too much time” and “wrong accounts” in order to make them observable and measurable.  They haven’t seen first-hand how effective it is to improve their team’s ability to achieve respectful agreement on exactly what their work methods should be – and then to measure the flow of deals using these new definitions.    

I am aware that some organizations are successful with the frontal “do six sigma” assault approach – but in the end, by whatever method they use, they have to win the hearts and minds of the executives. Now, I would say this is a problem in both manufacturing and in sales organizations. However, it is less of a problem in manufacturing because in manufacturing, at least, most people accept the concept of a production system. In sales and marketing it is much tougher because they don’t have that concept. Which is the second layer of disconnect.

The Second Layer of Disconnect is Recognizing the Production System.

People can accept the idea that salespeople should follow a process, and still hold a functional mind set. By that I mean they treat sales, marketing, and servicing as separate functions, essentially as it ends in themselves. Unfortunately, real live customers look at your company as a single entity, not as discreet departments.

You can (and depending on the size of your company and your sales force, you probably should) begin by getting the sales department’s house in order. However, in most organizations improvement can hit a wall – especially if people do not realize that Finding, Winning, and Keeping customers is in fact a production system with interdependencies just like manufacturing production. Instead of raw material, work in process, and finished goods (as in manufacturing), in sales you have prospects with needs, sales opportunities, and customer relationships. Salespeople struggle every bit as much with customers who don’t see the value of what they offer (an external issue of customer perception) as they do when marketers or sales engineers do a lousy job supporting them (an internal issue, perhaps even one that causes that perception).

Until management realizes it is a system (which requires a mental reset), they won’t understand what is required to fix it – sometimes leading to lackluster results. Which leads us to the third and final disconnect:

The Most Important Disconnect is Senior Managers Failing to Recognize They Need Process Excellence the Most

Whether you are in production plants or in sales and marketing, it is normal that senior executives assume process excellence is a tactic for the people in the plants to use, so they can cut costs, or whatever. The parallel in sales is when executives assume the sales process is for the salespeople to use.

Deming is famous for many reasons, but in my opinion one of the most profound and important things he contributed was the “Red Bead Experiment,” a workshop where the operation of a normal company is simulated. Right in front of your eyes management uses its traditional fixes like goal setting, job descriptions, slogans, incentives, and intimidation – which always fail. Employees valiantly try to contribute ideas to reduce the count of red beads (defects), but management, who is blissfully ignorant of process thinking, ignores them in favor of rewarding the higher performers and punishing the lower performers. In the end, basic production data displayed on a control chart demonstrates that the process as a whole is not capable of meeting business requirements.

The Red Bead Experiment provides a first-hand experience demonstrating that process excellence isn’t something for plant people or salespeople. It is essential to management as such. It is especially in sales and marketing, where untold millions of dollars are constantly risky decisions with absolutely zero field data to support them.

So, hopefully with that underpinning, you can see a bit more about the task at hand. In the last eleven years we have developed strategies for interviewing executives, using their perceptions in guided discovery workshops, and facilitating them through simulation games to help achieve a the “Ah HA!” moments needed. It is amazing how much energy and enthusiasm you can generate when you get it right.

I look forward to hearing how your own observations fit with what I have said – please comment below.


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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Mohan - January 20, 2014 Reply


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