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Any advice for someone (me) in sales who fails to see how lean can help?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Our company has a long history of lean in manufacturing, but I work in the sales department. We have our own sales improvement method, and I fail to see how lean could help, but I’m under pressure to comply and participate in the lean program. Any advice?

Ah – advice on resisting (that’s easy: just don’t do it, it’ll pass), advice on how to do lean in sales (I’m not sure I know), or advice on how lean could apply to a sales department?

Let me say I completely understand your reluctance and will attempt to discuss this from a different angle. The definition of lean I learned from Toyota is “to make products, first, we make people.” In this case, we would be thinking about “to make sales, first, we make salespeople.”

And immediately we hit a snag and confusion in understanding lean. This brings us to three really, really hard questions:

  1. What is a good sale (as opposed to a bad one)?
  2. What does it mean to be a good salesperson?
  3. How can lean help develop better salespeople?

The guys who invented lean at Toyota (the Toyota Production System), were the same people who had learned to build cars from scratch, then built factories over paddy fields, then concluded they’d never be competitive with U.S. automakers because of their low volumes. They had to find some other way to be competitive – and the whole thing was unlocked when Taiichi Ohno came up with kanban (and, truth be told, when Eiji Toyoda figured out the “chief engineer” system in product development). To understand lean in sales, we need to first understand sales, then the sales process, and then, only then, how lean can support both.

First, Look at Ticked-Off Customers

Lean tools are nothing but a learning scaffolding to help people stretch themselves outside their comfort zone and learn new things, but too often lean specialists confuse the scaffolding with the building itself, and it all becomes absurd real fast.

What is a good sale? The core of Toyota’s strategy is “one-time customer, lifelong customer.” A good sale, in that sense, is one that will lead to a repeat sale, one where the customer will feel good about his or her purchase and come back for more. Obviously, this is not only dependent on the sales department since the value of what you sell really matters, but sales can assist by helping customers see how the product or service you sell actually fits their real-life needs.

The first step here would be to take a step back and look at customers we’ve sold to who are not happy with their purchase. I realize that this is not a popular exercise with a team of salespeople who, more than anything, need to be motivated and optimistic (Sure, nine have said “no” but the tenth will be the deal of the century). But that’s the starting point of lean thinking.

As an exercise, I’d take a page from Amazon’s book and look into how good your department is at consoling the people who come back and complain (You’ll never hear about those who are just not happy and drop the case altogether). The entry point to lean is to overinvest in the service and response department and link it to sales so that the sales team really understands what customers experience – without systematically throwing the stone at production and delivery.

So far, no “lean” is involved other than finding a way to discuss with the sales team cases of unhappy customers and figure out what is sales contribution to the unhappiness. Customers are pleased with themselves when they feel they’ve found a bargain (I’m a great purchaser) and pissed off when they figure out they’ve been sold a lemon (I’ve been suckered). What can we do to handle expectations in order to, in lean thinking:

Point towards the most advantageous features of the product to customers according to what we understand is their real need YET not oversell the product or service just in order to get them to sign on the dotted line – they’re going to have to live with the sale afterward.

Second, Look at What Good Salespeople Do

Which brings us to the second point. Once we have a clearer idea of “what is a good sale,” as well as “what is a bad one,” we can ask ourselves the question of the skills needed to babysit a good sale. Now, here we have a real mystery: on the one hand, sales techniques are all the same and known to all. On the other, a few salespeople always visibly outperform the rest. What is it they do?

Think about it this way: in production, most operators in Toyota are 20% to 30% more productive than their equivalent in any other production line. Are they more motivated? Maybe. Are they more skilled? Certainly. But when you look closely enough, you discover that they work with two hands at the same time as opposed to one at a time. It’s massively quicker. But 1/ it’s hard to learn and 2/ it has to be taught all the time.

The mystery is therefore to discover the equivalent micro skill in your own selling situation.

Once you’ve figured out what is the detailed thing star salespeople do the others don’t, you can start training everybody to this micro skills, but since it’s usually something hard to see, and that maybe the good salespersons don’t know about, you’ve got to be looking for it.

And this is where lean can help.

First, set up a kanban. A Toyota production line gives the impression that it’s mass production because all cars are processed in a conveyor queue, but the reality is that there are no two cars alike. Each car has a “kanban,” a unique identity card with its chassis, options, color, etc. that helps everyone truly build cars one by one.

Rather than look at the day’s sales opportunities and pick the most promising ones to move them along the process, create a visual line, like at a restaurant, that visualizes opportunities as they arrive – large and small, easy or hard. Customers are served one by one, in the order in which they arrive. This will, in all likelihood, be resisted by the team that will have found some internal system to attribute what to whom.

Then, for each sales opportunity, sketch a “kanban” – what is specific about this person, what are they looking for, what do we have in stock that would be a good match, and how are we going to get them over sales fright and establish trust. (We are all scared of talking to salespeople because they know all the tricks to get money out of our pockets and we don’t.)

And then sell. But …


Second, create a space to visualize and discuss abnormalities. Set up a regular meeting with the sales team to discuss cases that should have gone sweetly but then something happened to turn the customer off. Yes, I know what I’m asking, and yes, some teams love it and some teams hate it. The point of the kanban is not to let individual salespeople pick their favorite victims, and the point of discussing what went wrong is not to fix it immediately but to stretch our understanding of the sales conditions.

For instance, there’s such an emotional component to selling that we can’t ignore moods – the customer’s mood, the salesperson’s mood, the team’s mood, the day of the week mood, and so on. In exploring what are normal or abnormal conditions, we will stretch our exploration beyond the narrow one-to-one sales tunnel and look around: what is the context? who is the real decision maker? What are the green buttons and red buttons? What do we do or say that builds trust, or destroys it in one unhappy line, joke, form not filled in, etc.

Which leads us, third, to check our sales standards and best practices for these elusive micro-skills that distinguish smart salespeople from the rest. We know there’s a knack in it somewhere, we don’t know where, so the only way to look is to discuss cases one-by-one to see whether our known standards apply or not – or whether we’re completely missing the one thing that matters.

I have limited experience with sales, but the greatest salesman I know (he sells high- priced equipment) has told me he does essentially two things:

  1. Establishes a personal connection on a detail with the customer (anything, where they come from, what color they like, whatever). He does this by observing and never asking questions, never being intrusive.
  2. Understands that customers usually come in fixated on a product model because they think it solves a practical problem for them. Of course, they have other constraints that make this one product unpractical, if only price. He figures out what the problem they’re pinned on is and orients them to other solutions that better fit their several constraints, and gets them to pivot and switch to other models.

I honestly don’t know whether this is what actually makes him so good at selling – he’s a rather quiet guy, with a reserved demeanor, neither particularly smiling or chatty, and the opposite of the smarmy salesman you can imagine. But the fascinating part is that these two specific micro skills are not particularly highlighted in the company’s “how to” sales manuals and training. They’re in there but drowned in with everything else from how to sell financing to doing the proper paperwork for accounts. This is very context related – in another small company I know that sells to large corporations, the basic sales skill is knowing how to resist purchasers’ relentless pressure on price regardless of any other outcome consideration.

At this stage, fourth, kaizen team efforts can be really helpful to get the team to examine how they process both customers and paperwork (proposals, responses, etc.) and tackle issues one by one to forge a better team – the usual lean recommendation is one hour per week for the team to work on improving something in the way they work. The difficulty is to make sure they don’t take the path of least resistance and improve things for them, but truly focus on how they can hone their sales skills as a team – how they can help each other to better take care of customers. kaizen is about looking for improvement potential, analyzing the current way we do things, coming up with new ideas and trying them until we forge, progressively a stronger culture.

Finally, fifth, find some ways to visualize successes and progress for the sales team, beyond objectives. Invent trophies. Sales is a rough job because, emotionally, it involves keeping up optimism in the face of people saying “no.” Visualizing progress is really important, or better, visualizing happy customers, testimonies etc. that nudge the team to look beyond “making the sale” to “creating a lifelong customer.”

Again, please remember my disclaimer that I’m not a sales expert, but as the CEOs I know look at lean as their strategies, in many companies, they’ve had to look into what happens in the sales department (often a “fortress”) and answer your very question for the sales teams. I believe though, the potential for lean is the same in sales as in everything else, but the trick is focusing on sales first, not just lean!

5 Comments | Post a Comment
Andrew BIshop February 28, 2018

This calls to mind a time when Bruce Hamilton stopped in for a visit at one of our operations.

By chance, our natioanal sales manager was on site, too, and said to Bruce as he headed out the door - "Bruce, I'm having trouble seeing how lean applies to sales."

"Well," replied Bruce, "everybody has problems, don't they?"

Michael Webb March 3, 2018


I’m generally a huge fan of your writing. However with all due respect, in this piece, you’ve failed to identify how the lean philosophy can identify and eliminate major and costly causes of waste in sales, and in businesses in general. Here are just three points you and your questioner might want to consider.


Point One: Focus on the value to the customer first, not on the sales (or any other) department

Let’s start with your closing statement: “The potential for lean is the same in sales as in everything else …” This is obviously true, since the goal of lean is to create maximum value with minimum waste. Then, you make an error: “… but the trick is focusing on sales first, not just lean!”

Obviously, being doctrinaire about lean is a bad idea. However, the place to start is not by focusing on sales. It is by identifying the value to the customer. To do otherwise risks suboptimization of the business/system. The question that must be answered is, “What value does sales create for the customer?”

For example, ten or fifteen years ago many big firms including Walmart famously eliminated thousands of sales jobs (not to mention purchasing agents) when they converted to reverse auctions via the Internet. Here’s another example: Booking an airline reservation used to require talking to a sales agent. Now, thousands of roles like it are done by web pages. Why? Because that is what customers prefer.

The question, “What value does the sales process create?” is a pregnant one. When a company fails to ask it, misalignment with their customers grows. For example, right now most prospects and customers are seeking information in places salespeople cannot go (such as the Internet and social media). Studies by Google, the CEB, and others have shown that B2B customers are using these channels to delay, or avoid talking to salespeople.

Unfortunately, companies continue to conceive of the sales job in the old-fashioned way, as a bunch of individual contributors. You fall into that trap also, sir, when you focused on helping weaker salespeople learn from the better ones. Of course they can. Wait – wasn’t there something about 96% of the problems being caused by the system instead of the individuals within it?

Where is the evidence individual selling skill is the bottleneck – the place with the greatest return for improving the system?


Point Two: Productivity can’t be improved until management recognizes the system that causes it

Instilling the principle of systems thinking in generations of manufacturing operations managers is one of the greatest contributions Deming and the Lean movement have made. Unfortunately, marketing, sales, estimating, service, and other parts of the system are still managed as ends in themselves in most organizations.

If misalignments and sub-optimization among departments caused huge waste in manufacturing, just wait until you start looking for them in sales and marketing!

For example, after leaning out its plant, one small roofing truss manufacturer in Canada found itself with 40% additional capacity. How could they sell more? Should they add salespeople? Should they (as you suggested in one of your examples) try to help weaker salespeople learn the magic words from the better salespeople? Should they “stretch their understanding of the sales conditions” – to the point of becoming intimate with the customer’s moods?

It turned out that the bottleneck limiting sales revenues was not in the sales department. It was in the capacity and lead time to produce quotes (very common in technical and building industries). Through value stream maps and other lean methods, the team reduced quote lead time from 14 days to 3 days. It turned out customers valued quicker quotes enough to pay a premium. The company increased its volume 30% within three months, while simultaneously increasing prices. It was not necessary to add salespeople. And the salespeople who worked there were very happy. So were the company’s owners. As the improvement rippled through the business, sustainable cashflow increased dramatically.

Here is another example of what sales organizations have to struggle with: The national accounts team for a division of a manufacturing conglomerate realized 90% of their time was consumed by customer service issues. Their customer service department was staffed to support distributors, not national accounts. National accounts wanted to buy direct to avoid the dealer’s markup, and still wanted all the “invisible” services distributors provided. To make their case, a cross-functional team had to map the value stream from the customer’s perspective – including all the “up-stream” sales work the national account managers had no capacity to work on.

Unfortunately, after six months of great progress defining hand-offs and creating an inside sales position for these accounts, all the progress that had been made was nearly destroyed. A representative from corporate HR announced a change to the sales compensation plan. It reduced base salaries and removed income caps on “high-performing individuals”. The HR rep justified the plan because, “salespeople are coin operated, after all”. Key members of the sales team were now more worried about paying their mortgages than improving the selling system.


Point Three: Sales and marketing productivity is the battleground

Whoever said, “No value is created until the customer grants an order” couldn’t have been more wrong.  

What value do marketers, sellers, and servicers create?

Actions on the part of prospects and customers. Every salesperson knows you must earn a prospect’s attention, information, and trust if you are ever going to get a chance to earn any of their money. Those actions are known as the customer’s journey, and they are the value stream in sales. Everything a company does that results in more of the right customers taking the actions they desire is valuable. Everything else is waste.

The increasing pace of change and complexity of doing business causes people to need more help taking the right actions: They need help realizing their problems, evaluating their alternatives, and prioritizing the effective actions and purchases.

The marketing and sales professions have tremendous talent and knowledge. The value they need to create is increasing exponentially. Yet most of these professional, skilled individuals are trapped within corporations that behave in myopic, self-centered ways.

And that is because the senior executives are still managing salespeople as if they were basket-weavers, instead of as important members of a system – a sales production system.

When someone in sales asks me, “How can lean help in sales?”, I respond with a simple question: “Tell me, in your organization, who’s job is it to make sales easier?”

The point of course is not to make salespeople’s jobs easier than anyone else’s. The point is to make customers want to buy from you rather than anyone else, without reducing prices.

The lean philosophy offers the scientific methods and respect for people that enable organizations to distinguish real value from real waste so they can make customers happier and grow more profitable at the same time.

Michael J. Webb

Author, Sales Process Excellence,
winner of the Shingo Research Award



Michael Ballé March 3, 2018


Can't disagree with your three points, in general, other than differing on our understanding of lean.

I remember when Toyota engineers used to work with suppliers in the early days of setting up their network in Europe. Supplier's engineers expected Toyota "lean" processes to replace their own.

Toyota engineers, on the other hand, expected the supplier to come up with their existing processes and look for abnormalities- as a starting point for self-study and learning.

My experience in working with CEOs, which means looking indeed at the whole companie and not functional turf, is that to understand what really happens at the gemba we start with concrete, practical issues each department encounters, and sales in no different, before we frame general points as you discuss, which are going to be different from one situation to the next.

I'm not saying high-level principles are wrong, per se. At some level of generality, everything is true. But the real lesson I learned from sensei is start with gemba specifics, solve problems to discover the real issues, face these deeper challenges, frame them in a way specific to the company and situation, and then form solutions with the people themselves.

This is what I've tried to convey from my experience with the sales end of the process - gemba-based learning rather than "lean" ideology.

So I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree on this one :^)

Michael Webb March 5, 2018


Again, I reiterate my respect for your writing generally. I have studied what you wrote very closely here in an attempt to clarify and to truly understand it.

Obviously there is disagreement, but it is not about lean. Here’s what I mean.

You make a statement which seems to sum up your position:

"I'm not saying high-level principles are wrong, per se. At some level of generality, everything is true."

Take the second sentence first: “At some level of generality,” implies that generalizations are traced to reality (such as with operational definitions).

Then you say, “everything is true,” which is absurd. Pigs cannot fly, black cannot be white, and “everything” cannot be true – unless you allow language to disconnect from reality. This is fantasy, not scientific use of language.

Now take the first sentence, “I’m not saying high-level principles are wrong.” Yet, that is exactly the meaning of the second sentence. You meant to shed doubt on principles, because you followed it up with ...   

“But the real lesson I learned from sensei is start with gemba specifics, solve problems to discover the real issues, face these deeper challenges, frame them in a way specific to the company and situation, and then form solutions with the people themselves.”

In the two examples I provided, this is exactly how the improvements were created. The people involved formed the solutions and implemented them. In my examples however, the improvements were definitely accomplished because of the insights they gained from general principles. Principles of lean, like systems thinking, and the importance of value to the customer.

So, yes, we will agree to disagree on this. But, again, with all due respect, the disagreement has little to do with the principles of lean.  The disagreement has to do with the philosophical premises which underpin principles of knowledge.

Obviously, this forum is not the appropriate place to debate philosophical pragmatism. So, I’ll stop here, and thank you again for all the things you’ve written about lean, from which I have learned so much that is useful and productive.


Michael Webb

Jack Burke March 8, 2018

1. learn what lean thinking is all about, understand it. Understand how to use the many tools. Ask the good questions you are struggling with, how can sales help to drive the lean improvements, get involved in other department teams and add the sales perspective to their thinking. Represent the customer in cross functional teams and learn just what the other departments are doing.

2 focus your sales team on defining customer value and share this with your organisation. If you can define and understand what the customer wants you can create a competitive advantage.

3Look into your sales processes, do some value stream mapping and identify where your process adds value and identify wastes.

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