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Bringing Lean to Your Sales Team

by Brent Wahba
October 26, 2016

Bringing Lean to Your Sales Team

by Brent Wahba
October 26, 2016 | Comments (2)

One of the more challenging departments to implement lean in is Sales. But these challenges must be be worked through, because Sales is a department with processes, workflows and customer insights that are critical to creating a lean organization through-and-through. LEI faculty member Brent Wahba shares his experience introducing sales departments to lean.

A core part of a lean transformation is identifying and eliminating waste. What are some examples of waste that are unique to sales?

One of the most challenging aspects of sales work is that salespeople and managers have multiple roles inside a great big “system” or market. Sales has their own processes like prospecting, quoting, competitive analysis and order processing; supports other internal value streams; and becomes an integral part of a customer’s value stream (“buyer’s journey”) so that customers can navigate their best path to satisfaction.  Throughout each, sales organizations have to create and improve the flow of useful information so that others can get their work done. That’s a lot of effort and complexity.

Because all these processes are interconnected, any waste the sales organization can prevent or eliminate is positively compounded to provide an even greater overall system benefit. For instance, preparing too much sales collateral (brochures, emails, videos) not only takes a lot of time to create and produce, but overburdens those who have to receive and process that information – even if it just means taking the time to delete or recycle it. Another example is selling too much (overproduction) when there isn’t enough organizational capacity to design or deliver what was promised. That leads to both internal and customer problems.

So obviously the 7 (or 8 or 9) Wastes apply to sales too, but there’s another one that I think is rarely discussed: a bad strategy.  If we don’t have a good, value-producing purpose and strategy, then we create waste for the entire organization, all our customers (who have to listen to us blather about our ineffective solutions), as well as all of our investors and suppliers because we are all headed in the wrong direction together. In a lot of cases, that can be fatal.

So let’s move on to the transformation itself. You've steadily been making all the value streams lean, and now Sales is next. What’s the best way to inform them what’s about to happen?

In most organizations, Sales (and Marketing) are usually the last departments to be asked to join a lean transformation and that’s unfortunate because their process improvements give other value streams more capacity and a clearer definition of customer value to work towards. If Sales isn’t aligned with Operations, for instance, we will struggle to meet customer delivery expectations, level workloads, and often miss big opportunities to increase profitability. Another “late to the lean party” problem is that most of the inside stories and outside examples are from Operations. For lean to be successful in sales, it has to be taught and understood in the context and terminology of sales – not manufacturing Camrys and Corollas. A lean transformation is hard enough, and adding more complexity is not going to improve the success rate.

To counter these challenges, I like to start with simple questions like “What’s keeping you from selling more?” or “What problems are your customers having?” Once it’s understood that lean is really about learning to solve your own problems with your own solutions (and not creating an army of mindless, Japanese-speaking robots), most salespeople get on board pretty quickly because they recognize lean as a solution and not just another good-sounding set of tasks to add to their overburdened lives. It is helpful to point out that a lot of good salespeople are naturally lean in that they solve both customer and internal problems, they communicate efficiently, they focus on the most promising targets, and they coach others to build better organizational capabilities. And finally, a number of well-known sales methodologies have strong parallels to lean in that they are efficiently managed processes with built-in learning and improvement cycles. Lean is not rocket science so we just need to respect and engage sales practitioners to leverage their own insights and not blindly accept our thinking. Coming across like we are trying to bestow some secret, special knowledge upon them won’t encourage anyone – in fact, it often has the opposite effect.

And once they've been set up for what's to come, what do you find to be the best way to start the transformation? Visual management? Kanbans? 5S? Etc.?

Because there is so much complexity and variation (not to mention opportunity) in sales processes and management, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will be universally successful. Some organizations have succeeded with a “sales factory” approach (using a lot of lean manufacturing concepts) while others have failed miserably with the same methods. The path to a successful lean transformation is therefore situational - regardless of which specific processes or organizations are being improved. 

So in sales, you can’t know where to start until you both look at the strategic goals of the organization (what are our major long-term gaps?) and start talking to the front-line salespeople who are meeting with customers every day. Most companies don’t have a good sales feedback loop to take advantage of these very deep internal and customer insights the reps all have. I worked with one company that, like everyone else, wanted to sell more. As we dug into their problems, however, we found that selling efficiency was far from their biggest issue. They were having problems delivering products on time, and as a result, their reps were afraid to go visit customers for fear of being berated. They also had little high-level managerial coordination across business units, and this created a ton of waste for the reps because constantly changing priorities and a broken compensation structure didn’t support alignment (or profit for that matter). These may sound like complicated problems, but once they are identified, they really aren’t that hard to solve with the right cross-functional people in the room and a few simple problem solving tools like A3s or value stream mapping.      

The ultimate goal of sales is (surprise, surprise) to sell more. Lean can certainly speed things up and reduce waste, but does that necessarily translate into increased sales?

Definitely! There are two major parts to this. First of all, if we better understand what customers value, we will develop better products, services, and operational capabilities to deliver that value. This will naturally lead to higher sales. Also, within the selling process we will be providing more valuable information to those customers at the right time, place, format, and quantity to help them make better buying decisions that (hopefully) include our more valuable offerings. 

Secondly, only after we understand value can we understand waste, and can thus focus our efforts towards the activities that really do lead to more sales. The department store magnate John Wanamaker famously stated, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half,” but I think he was wildly optimistic. I love those entertaining Super Bowl commercials as much as anybody, but the trouble is that the vast majority don’t lead to higher sales or even better brand perception. There is tremendous inefficiency in promotion and advertising so we need to leverage that science of buyer psychology along with our lean concepts so that we truly add value and not just blindly streamline our waste.

For more information on implementing lean in a sales environment, join Brent Wahba's workshop Lean Fundamentals for Sales Organizationsto be held in Austin, TX on November 8-10. 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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Jerome Biensan October 27, 2016

That's interesting points of view, thanks Brent.
How can you define the standards (first way to Kaizen) into marketing, into client approach, after sales, communication ways?

What does realy make value into sales dept? Quality of services, customer care? One very good way to improve Sales, product line and quality by the Lean is the use of voice of the client and suggestion boxes (Gemba of clients), you can go to improvement with the good questions and find what realy make value for your clients and form there go another step with adapt your standards in the good direction with the sales persons.

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Brent Wahba October 27, 2016

Thank you for your comments, Jerome.  I really like where you are headed with the standardization part.  If we know what both delights customers AND makes them buy from us, we can standardize critical parts of our sales and marketing processes - from the brand promise all the way through salesperson interactions with customers.  Brent

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