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Fixing Lean’s “Sales” Problem

by Jacob Stoller
January 23, 2018

Fixing Lean’s “Sales” Problem

by Jacob Stoller
January 23, 2018 | Comments (6)

(Tips from a Recovering Salesperson)

When lean people get together to discuss the future, it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to the perennial challenge of convincing senior managers to support lean. Why, when the business advantages have been so clearly demonstrated, is this so difficult?

My perspective, which comes from my “past life” selling large technology projects, is that people have heard the logical arguments for lean, but just aren’t sold on the idea. In other words, lean has a sales problem.

The fact that rational arguments alone don’t change hearts and minds is a basic tenet of sales and marketing, and has been scientifically proven by numerous psychological and neurological studies. We also know that unless people have bought in emotionally, that is, with their whole brain, they are unlikely to act.  

Sales organizations have a significant history of meeting this challenge in the corporate world. An excellent example is how global technology vendors and consulting firms won senior management support for huge transformative projects like Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems - undertakings that were risky, disruptive, and enormously expensive.

While many of these mega projects did more harm than good from a lean perspective, it’s clear that these firms did a masterful job of getting senior management support. Furthermore, the methods they used, commonly referred to as consultative selling, are surprisingly compatible with lean thinking.

3 Tips for Selling the C-Suite

Consultative selling hit the mainstream in the late 1980s and rapidly became the corporate standard for training salespeople. The charge was led by sales gurus like David Sandler, Larry Wilson, and Neil Rackham, who renounced the high-pressure tactics of previous eras and promoted a collaborative approach aimed at win-win solutions and long-term relationships. The main idea was that the salesperson doesn’t push product, but works side-by-side with the customer to discover solutions to problems.

Unfortunately, the evolution of consultative selling coincided with a growing focus on short-term shareholder value. Consequently, the win-win purpose behind consultative selling is often compromised, and the approach is reduced to little more than a toolkit for making the numbers. (Sound familiar?)

Yet consultative selling, when practiced as intended, provides a common-sense path for convincing people to change their thinking  - one that is well-suited to the task of winning over more senior managers to lean.

Consultative selling teaches us that executives in large organizations don’t buy into big ideas on merit alone – a proposal has to coincide with priorities they have already set and emotionally bought into. The sales task, therefore, revolves around building trusted relationships through which that connection can be identified and brought to light.

Here are three strategies that major firms in the technology and consulting sectors followed, along with suggestions for applying them to lean promotion.

1. Understand the Business

The firms made considerable investments in understanding their customers’ businesses, often structuring their sales forces by customer vertical and hiring executives from targeted industries to act as account executives. This made it easier to build strong relationships with customer decision-makers and set the stage for essential peer-to-peer conversations where the customer’s business, not the technology, was the major focus.

Lean advocates have an insider advantage, but often need to do more to understand the corporate agenda that drives major decisions. What are the pressures on the industry in general? What are competitors doing? What are the backgrounds of board members and primary investors? What KPIs are driving the top decision-makers? All these are prerequisites for entering into a serious discussion about lean at the enterprise.

2. Find the “Pain”

Using their knowledge of customer industries, the firms successfully identified their customers’ most urgent business problems – pre-existing circumstances that were pressuring decision-makers to act. In the ERP scenario, the sales team might have learned that the CEO was under pressure to improve time to market, anticipate customer buying trends, or comply with a regulatory change in the industry. Solutions would be configured and presented accordingly.

Lean offers a sustainable solution for many pain points. In my book The Lean CEO, I identified ten “burning platforms”, such as financial crisis, poor morale and productivity, interdivisional dysfunction, and a squeeze between rising costs and declining quality. Understanding the pain points, and how lean can address them, provides the background for identifying a solid case for lean adoption.

3. Connect the Dots

The firms were able to demonstrate to decision makers that proposed solutions had been successfully adopted by similar organizations facing similar circumstances. Considerable emphasis was placed on reference sites, case studies, and customer testimonials. Tech-speak was also avoided in favor of a “customer friendly” language based on block diagrams, flow charts, simple explanations, and product demos.

Lean advocates, when they’ve identified a real need, should present lean as a strategy for easing the corporate pain, and do so in a non-technical language that corporate executives are comfortable with. Taking the CEO on a gemba walk at a lean company may not be enough – the CEO needs to also see the senior management thinking in that organization. Lean journeys are unique, and while it’s essential to confirm that leaders are in it for the long haul and appreciate lean principles and values, it’s also essential to allow decision-makers to make lean their own, and to describe it their own way. 

Play to Lean’s Advantage

Sales is no magic bullet, and lean is by no means sellable in every organization, at least in the short term. That said, my conversations in the lean community indicate to me that there are far more winnable opportunities than are being realized.

For one, the “burning platforms” that have compelled CEOs to adopt lean in the past are not rare events. There is also a growing recognition that exclusive focus on shareholder value, which stands in the way of lean thinking, is not a sustainable strategy. As well, there’s evidence that younger managers who are less entrenched in old-school business culture are starting to infiltrate senior management teams.

Consultative selling, like lean, is a long-term strategy. Lean advocates should view selling lean as an ongoing process of learning, discovery, and productive dialogue. Lean teams don’t have the marketing budgets, corporate connections, or flashy demos of a tech giant, but they do have an insider advantage, and a sincere commitment to their cause that few salespeople can match.

Lean’s ultimate sales advantage, however, is that the lean experience tends to create passionate followers. Lean changes people’s lives for the better, and when they tell their personal stories, this touches the emotions as well as the rational mind. If lean teams simply do more to share their stories, they’re already on the right track.


The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  change management,  leadership
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani January 23, 2018
2 People AGREE with this comment

As Art Byrne says, CEOs need to become Lean experts. Selling CEOs a product, Lean, does not compel them to become Lean experts. There is vast empirical evidence that most CEOs have zero interest in becoming Lean experts (see https://bobemiliani.com/solving-lean-transformation-problem/). When CEOs agree to buy EPS systems, there is no expectation of the CEO becoming a ERP expert, nor is there any commitment by CEOs to become ERP experts. It is a purchase transaction, and all work is delegated to the supplier and internal experts. That, for the most part, is what has transpired with Lean, except in a very small number of cases, where the CEOs committed themselves to becoming Lean experts. My research shows that, after 30 years, items 1, 2, and 3 are well worn and largely ineffective.

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Jacob Stoller January 23, 2018
2 People AGREE with this reply

Thanks for reading my article, Bob. Clearly our respective research has led to some very different conclusions. My research, which is based on CEO interviews, shows that many CEOs have adopted lean in response to compelling circumstances. Identifying a CEOs most pressing problems and demonstrating how lean has helped others in similar situations is based on a pretty basic idea that is still the central pillar of corporate sales.

I would add that ERP systems involve a lot more than vendor transactions with the IT department. These systems transform the way information is handled in the organization, impacting many key areas that the CEO is involved with.

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Juan Mauro Cardenas January 23, 2018

Good article Jacob, I really think is a good reflection of what happens in many cases.

The CEO or leadership (could be middle management as well) in a business sometimes has no time to focus in understanding technical issues, and does not understand all the benefits of kaizen, lean, six sigma or any other method he/she is not familiar with, just focus in the pressure that feels to meet their goals on time, becasuse that is what his/her boss is asking for; and neither the manager or the CEO knows about better ways of working.

I remeber one case, one of my teachers in MBA was very good at statistics and was commenting to me that he was frustrated because he presented a project to one CEO and did not get a positive answer. I asked to repeat what he told him, and was something like "how to increase the Cpk value of the process, doing a DOE to optimize the parameter of the oven" (an oven was in the middle of that process)....so I told him - this is why, he (the CEO) did not understand anything of what you said.

So, like it or not, we - the experts need to "speak" different, so the message is understable and more saleable to persons who take the decisions in any organization.





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Jay Bitsack January 23, 2018

Hi Jacob,

Without question, the "best" approach to selling [anything] is grounded in "consultative selling" as you've described it.  It's a form of CRM (CUSTOMER - and PROSPECT - RELATIONSHIP MANAGEMENT) that demands a BIG investment in time and effort on behalf of the sales person/team.  UNFORTUNATELY, most sales persons are NOT sufficient patient nor is their most like compensation scheme set up to promote the sort of THINKING AND BEHAVING that consutative selling requires.

Ergo, your statement... "Consultative selling, like lean, is a long-term strategy"...  means that it is more of a long-shot approach than a sure thing.  A great deal depends on the willingness of the selling organization's management to make the necessary investment.

Because I've been a practitioner of consultantive selling as a consultant offering reengineering/transformation services to client organizations - of the type that include developing, evoluting, and sustaining TRUE LEAN THINKING AND BEHAVING competencies and capabilities - I've experienced a powerful adjunct "trigger" in the to-by or not-to-buy decision-making process.  That trigger involves the opportunity to see, feel, smell, and viserally experience not only the benefits that these competencies and capability have to offer, but also the honest/raw level of commitment to THINKING AND BEHAVING DIFFERENTLY - at ALL LEVELS - that's required.

When given such an opportunty - via structured visits to other organizations that  are successfully making the CI/OpEX journey  - the decision-makers in question often realize that they want the benefits, but cannot stomach the commitment levels and the paradigm shift that's required.  Ergo, the typical response is to look elsewhere for what appears to be the thing(s) everyone else is doing...  investing in Six Sigma and/or enterprise-class technology solutions.

[Note:  Those companies following the "lemming route" will typically throw "lean" methods/tools/techniques into the mix just to be on the "safe" side that they are not missing something.]

Back to consultative selling...  Being able to work closely with an organization that is actually fully committed to making the TRUE LEAN journey is a way for that company or those companies to ADD MORE VALUE to society by sharing their knowledge/know-how and lessons learned.  Having this kind of access to success stories goes a long way in building credibility and shortening the otherwise potentially lengthy consultative selling cycle.

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Chris Whitmore January 24, 2018

Great article Jacob. The challenge for Lean (as a product) seems to be the capability (or desire) gap between selling and actually consulting.  Because the Lean mindset is typically developed in an operational environment rather than commercial, the expertise to help transform businesses is locked in individuals that aren't inclined to think of themselves as sales professionals. Lean consultants love to do the consulting work, but aren't always keen to do the work of sales (value-creating work in itself).  

To accelerate the movement and create a better world, this commercial gap from actual to target will require deeper understanding of root cause and many more experiments to figure out the best countermeasures. Fun!

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Sandeep April 09, 2018

Thanks Jacob for a great article. I have been practicing Operations improvement consulting since 06 years, out of which for almost last 03 years, I have been helping Clients as an Independent Business Consultant. One thing I have observed is that generally CEOs / MDs have an inclination (either by seeing an example of some OPEX happening in Competitor company or by hearing of it in some seminar) of 'possiility of change through a Consultant' and they are sure that things have potential to change in their organisation. I think they try to guage the potential of a Consultant (during selling) as to, as a team personality, how capabale is he to bring in the change (as imagined by CEO / MD) in the ever argueing, adamant and confusing team he presently has; which he tried changing, but couldn't. Second thing is that CEO then talks about connecting this to the Operational-financial numbers to show either to MD or Board that money spent on Consultant/s has positive ROI. I agree that CEOs/MDs surely do not have the time and patience to further understand the technicalities, whatsoever, even if you try to show to them that you have a solution that will take them to moon. Finally and surely, I feel and practice that solving helps than selling.

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