What Germ Theory Can Teach You About Your Sales Process

A seminal article appeared in an American management journal in the late 1980s: The Germ Theory of Management by Myron Tribus.

When I read that article, I was amazed to learn that when germ theory was discovered in the late 1800s, it was not welcomed by the medical profession! Tribus drew a brilliant analogy between the response of 19th century physicians to germ theory and the response of modern management professionals to Deming’s insights on the effects of variation on business management.

Studying this bit of history is instructive for you if you are trying to improve your own-or a client’s-sales process. If you are serious about process improvement and you haven’t read this article, by all means click on the link and make sure you have it with you next time you’re on an airplane flight or have time to study.

In the meantime, here are some parallels for you to consider:

Unpredictable Outcomes


A physician of the day …”‘successfully’ practiced medicine without knowledge of germs. His experience showed him that some patients got better, some got worse, and some stayed the same. In each case, some rationale could be used to explain the outcome.” 

Today, sales and marketing executives are “successfully” practicing sales and marketing, and sometimes revenues go up and costs go down, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes it stays the same. In each case, they can always find a rationale to explain the outcome.

They just can’t predict the outcome.


People Are People


Just like today, people in the 19th century learned their trade in school, in their training, and from experience. It was accepted practice among surgeons to wear the same old overcoat for years (to absorb blood spatter). The idea of changing clothes and washing hands between patients seemed alien and hard to believe. 


Likewise, today most companies manage marketing, selling, and servicing as separate functions. To them, the idea of stepping outside “the box” to design a selling process that matches the customer’s buying process seems difficult and alien.


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Powerful Advances Are Disruptive

A physician of the 19th century would have had an opportunity to read about the discoveries of Pasteur (who of course discovered that pasteurization killed germs), Lister (who discovered that carbolic acid could be used as an antiseptic), and Leuwenhoek (who discovered microbes).

Such a person faced a dilemma: Hand-washing and wearing clean clothes were radical.  You were admitting you had been doing something wrong and implying other doctors were harming their patients by not doing so. The shock made it much easier for respected medical professionals to ridicule the idea that invisibly tiny things existed that could be harmful.

Today, the rise of the search engines is just one example of how dramatically people’s behaviors are changing. It is much easier to look for more information on Google than it is to accept calls and visits from salespeople.

Yet most businesses continue to rely on their salespeople to prospect for leads. Calls for “integrated marketing” are just as noisy as calls for “better lead generation.” Yet both remain unachieved in most companies as executives cling to beliefs of the past: that marketing is about “The Four “Ps” and that the sales process is about “what salespeople do.”


Stupid Humans!


Of course, history demonstrated that Pasteur was right, and that the behavior of the medical profession (unfortunately) was mostly typical of humans facing a radical new idea. Myron Tribus’ article compared the power of Deming’s insights on the effect of variation on business management with the power of germ theory to improve the medical profession’s efficacy.

Although the article was widely read, it was not widely read enough! Few management luminaries have followed its implications into the sales and marketing arena.  

That is exactly where the frontlines are. So to all of you who are carrying on the battle: Keep it up!

We’ll all succeed eventually.

Michael J. Webb

September 24, 2008



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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Rick Roberge - October 2, 2008 Reply

Apparently, September was “science month”. I’ll use this post as another example for my readers. http://therainmakermaker.com/2008/09/18/new-fall-series.aspx

Benjamin Arnold - December 4, 2008 Reply

Nice Post, Michael.

I’m passing through. I found this article precisely to make a similar point.

My blog is on acupuncture and Chinese medicine but it attempts to borrow analogies as you’ve done here.

I try to speak about change and innovation in general in my blog, including sales and marketing. So thank you!

Michael Webb - December 15, 2008 Reply

Thanks, Benjamin! MW

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