Lean Strategy Integrates Manufacturing and Sales

Michael Ballé is one of the best writers in the Lean movement. In a recent column, he answered a fascinating question:

“Is there a Lean strategy?”

Amazingly, his answer went right to the sales and marketing perspective. I couldn’t resist pointing out why the “strategy” inherent in Lean is under appreciated.

I definitely recommend you read his response – paraphrased here:

Although there is  “no such thing as ‘strategy’ in the lean vocabulary … through learning how to practice kaizen yourself, through teaching others and through supporting kaizen over time, the right strategy will become apparent.”

Basically Lean means:

           Help customers to support their lifestyle (so they repurchase)

           Engage and support people (so they pay attention)

+        Partner with suppliers (so they share their innovations)______

           Grow sustainably

Although he did not come right out and criticize the term “strategy” as it is often used, he definitely leaned that way. I could not agree more with the weakness inherent in the general concept of “strategy.”

One of the striking things about Lean is that it drives everyone, including executives who are far away from where work is done, to be directly aware of the value added or waste created (rather than making assumptions). Lean requests that you bypasses computerized reporting in favor of making the flow visual, and that you go to the gemba to see for yourself, etc. Crucially, this approach can reveal flaws in your strategy. Some assumptions (“strategies”) we all have about how things work are nothing more than floating abstractions.

Take another kind of production system every business has: the one that produces customer sales orders. The work of finding the right individuals, and gaining their attention, interest, time, and trust inorder to ultimately gain some of their money is mostly invisible and unmeasured. It is an area where the use of “strategy”  is rampant, and quite often unconnected to what really goes on in the field with salespeople (who are usually left to their own devices to implement the so-called “strategy”).

However, the precise approach Ballé describes – actually creating value for the customer at each stage – can make the flow of this production visible and can speed it up, not to mention exposing enormous waste. And contrary to their reputation, this approach is readily embraced by marketers and salespeople.

Millions and millions of dollars are wasted by companies who rely on fuzzy, unmeasured (and therefore unvalidated) “strategies” in sales and marketing. All manner of offering “solutions” instead of products, sales training, CRM, compensation, brand marketing, channel management, and more are constantly being implemented without actually defining the problem they aim to solve.

This would become readily apparent if marketing, selling, and servicing groups used operational definitions – getting down to brass tacks of defining the quality and quantity of their actual sales opportunities in their sales funnels, something akin to developing standard work in manufacturing. To be sure, the subjects of this production – people who happen to be prospects and customers – cannot be treated like somany ingots or engine assemblies. But in my experience, most B2B companies would benefit if they put even a fraction of the energy they spend studying their ingots and engine assemblies into studying nature of the businesses and people who buy them.

Strategy is an important concept, and I’ve become skeptical over the years that it is often used as a crutch for affirming what some executives prefer to believe, instead of going through the hard work of actually becoming directly aware of what the customers comprising their sales and marketing funnels are actually made of.

So, to bring the conversation back around to lean and strategy, if it is important to keep management’s attention connected to the facts in the plant or on the street, I would say Lean is more strategic than “strategy” itself.

Michael Webb

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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