Are You Ready to Lead Your Salespeople on a Lean Kaizen Journey?

The tough economy seems to be causing more companies to poke around their sales departments with 5S or other lean-style experiments. We’ve received more inquiries on the topic, and some threads have popped up in lean and process-oriented bulletin boards.

Many of these inquiries come from in-house practitioners trained and experienced only in the production context. Applying lean in the sales department is difficult for such in-house practitioners. That’s because sales and marketing is an entirely different kind of value stream from normal production work.

Before embarking on a lean kaizen journey in your sales department, it helps a lot to know what you are getting into.

Consider: inside the plant, you evaluate waste according to your idea of what a customer would pay for, and you are usually right. In sales and marketing however, you do not know what a customer will pay for – by definition.

Salespeople may spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to get customers to buy. In their world, being right makes you a hero; being wrong makes you a scumbag.

How are you (or they) supposed to determine what is value and what is waste in advance of the end result?

THAT is the primary question to answer if you are to successfully apply lean kaizen to sales and marketing. Further, salespeople and their managers must agree with your answer.

Finding the Right Leaders

A lean practitioner who has no experience generating leads, carrying a bag, bringing in customer deals, and dealing with quota pressures generally does not have the background to pull off a lean kaizen initiative in sales and marketing.

If you are planning a modest “efficiency” project in the sales department, be advised you’re likely to be seen as irrelevant (at best) by salespeople.

Perhaps that is OK if your company is not ready to face anything more fundamental. Most aren’t, so there is nothing to be ashamed of.

However, you should realize this so you can determine if this is the best way to spend your own valuable time.

On the flip side, even the best salespeople, marketers, and Sales VPs won’t have success improving their company’s sales processes if they have no experience analyzing numbers, patience for logic and systems thinking, and training in the quality and productivity sciences. If they do manage to generate any data, they won’t be able to make heads or tails with it.

Finding the right leaders is critical. They must earn the respect of the team, and have the expertise and experience to make every step count along the way.

Recognize What Lean Kaizen Looks Like in Sales and Marketing

Making progress in a lean journey for sales and marketing requires you to lead sellers and marketers down a path that is understandable to them, and highly relevant to their short-term issues and challenges. You earn the respect of the sales department by demonstrating you can help them get more business.

What they need is help making short-term numbers improve, while gathering data – and hearts and minds – that go in the right direction. For example:

  • What observable characteristics of deals make them more or less winnable?
  • Which departments within our prospects are most important to us, and what do they value about our offer?
  • What stages do prospects go through in their problem-solving (buying) process, and how can we make things work better for them?

You can (and should) start small. Kaizen, after all, is continuous improvement in small, sustainable steps. Success on a small scale is a necessary foundation for more ambitious breakthroughs. Eventually, success requires some rethinking of your company’s basic premises about its customer relationships (just as the lean journey required rethinking manufacturing premises).

For example, most companies manage salespeople and sales channels as if they were a stand-alone task or function, left to their own devices.

Companies would never dream of asking their engineers to design production machines to their own preferences, while leaving production workers to handle their problems on their own. Senior production executives are often fanatics about systems thinking.

Yet most traditional companies have ignored systems thinking when it comes to their marketing, which is run independently from sales departments, with little or no accountability for ROI. In the days when the main channel to market was manual labor and the picks and shovels of cold calls, direct mail, telesales, and so forth, salespeople could survive and even thrive by working harder, at least to some degree.

No more. Prospects and customers expect to find information they need to solve their problems via search engines, websites, white papers, social media, and mobile devices, among other things.

Do your salespeople or sales channels control any of this?

Of course not.

Worse, the folks who do control these resources often have no idea how to fix these problems even if they were inclined  to do so.

It isn’t that prospects don’t want to talk to your dealers or salespeople anymore. It’s that they want to talk to them later in the buying process.

They expect your dealers and salespeople to add more value than before by helping them understand their situations and applications, not just your products.

Reducing waste in the sales production system means doing more things that generate customer responses and fewer things that do not. This means

  • more and better lead generation and nurturing tactics (such as opt-ins to white papers, webinars, needs assessments, and application-oriented newsletters)
  • more and better qualification of prospects, reaching decision makers, and making offers that hit the customer at the right time, and in the bull’s eye of their problems and needs.

It means doing less “spray-and-pray,” less “show-up and throw-up.” Sales is not always a numbers (volume) game anymore. It is more often a game of quality, where the customer’s responses to your interactions with them provide the evidence and data you need to improve the performance of the system.

Salespeople, marketers, and even sales VPs cannot do this on their own. Nor can they do it all at once. It requires a continuous improvement approach built on evidence of what is working and not working now.

It also requires senior management support just as the lean kaizen journey in manufacturing requires senior management support, and for the same reasons.

Embarking on a Lean Journey In the Sales Department

Everyone in every market is sick of junk email, telesales, cold calls, ads, demos, and proposals that waste our time!

We all wish sellers would learn to do a better job getting the right message to the right person at the right time. Figuring out how your company should do that is the goal of lean kaizen in sales and marketing. The value produced is measured in the customer’s context, not just in your company’s context.

The logic of VSM, 5S, the scientific method, PDCA, and other practices have a profound role in making sales and marketing work visible. However, they will only work once your team understands howthe value stream works out there, in the field, between the customer’s ears and in the customer’s actions.

This is not something to fool around with; it is serious stuff, with serious results.

My advice? Take it up with your company’s executives. Read the articles on this website around the topic of lean and sales and marketing. Float the idea with your sales and your marketing teams to see their level of interest.

You might be surprised: many sales and marketing people have been itching to fix things for years, but didn’t have the tools or the framework to do so.

Oh, and one more thing: Be sure to find a lean sensei who understands sales and marketing.

Until next week.

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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Correction tape - November 17, 2010 Reply

After read it, I think a lot. The content is very exciting and I can almost understand. Please keep going on and continue to add excellent posts. That’s big help for me. You are tops.Great! You have done a terrific job communicating your message.

Arvind Singh - March 30, 2020 Reply

Nice read. Would request for more knowledge on sales performance improvement.

    Michael Webb - April 21, 2020 Reply


    “Sales performance” is a big topic. It basically boils down to quantity and quality of the flow of customers. Increasing the quality has the biggest impact, just as it does in manufacturing. That’s because, unlike in manufacturing few companies help their salespeople to operationally define their terms or their processes. And only by doing that can a company figure out where the bottleneck is.

    The bottleneck could be out in the market, meaning there just isn’t much demand for what the company offers.
    Or the bottleneck could be in the marketing, meaning the company has not communicated value effectively enough.
    Or the bottleneck could be in the nurturing or qualifying, meaning the sales force is engaging with low quality prospects.
    Or the bottleneck could be in the selling, meaning the sales force is not effective at converting the customers, whether because they have poor skills, or lousy admin or technical support.
    Or the bottleneck could be in the servicing, meaning salespeople get sucked into solving problems after the sale.

    Obviously, each of these requires a vastly different “fix.” But, if your organization has properly defined its terms and gathered evidence telling you where the bottleneck is, you can then be confident that elevating the capacity of the right bottleneck will elevate sales performance of the entire company.

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