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Selling Lean


While perusing Craig's List the other day, I ran across the following ad:

FREE TO GOOD HOME: Antique Continuous Improvement Methodology.

Sounds great and looks different from every angle. Starts fine but only

runs about 10% of the time. Craves constant attention. Comes with

over 2,000 how-to manuals and a giant toolbox. 24/7 Consulting also

available at extra cost. Call 555-NO-WASTE and ask for Taiichi

Madison Avenue, we have a problem.

Thousands of people have spent decades trying to disseminate lean concepts, but I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the world is about to abandon traditional management. So what exactly is wrong? Well, lots of things that interact in complex ways to keep lean from spreading and becoming the accepted management system. You've probably experienced it too. How hard is to explain what lean is to a friend? "Oh yeah, you mean six sigma, right? My cousin has like 3 black belts in that." Or how about trying to convince your boss or peers that lean is a worthy undertaking? "Yeah that lean stuff sounds great and we certainly have lots of 'Mupa,' but uh, we're really busy right now – let's circle back around in a few months." Or years … or never.

Call me biased, but based on what I do for a living, I see that a part of our problem is how we "sell" lean to our uninitiated coworkers. Forgive me for stereotyping for a moment, but most of us in the lean world are logical, process-focused, left-brainers. That's a good thing when it comes to solving problems, but often hurts us when we are selling. Sure selling is a process too, but it involves brain structures that we just cannot see or change like we can move machines on a factory floor (fact: mental kaizens are illegal in all 50 states and most democratic countries). So whether it's toothpaste, cars, or management ideas, buying always has a strong unconscious, emotional component. And given how many people bought pet rocks or still buy lottery tickets, it's not always logical.

Thankfully, some of this "lean stuff" can still be (carefully) applied in sales and marketing to this problem. Given the complexity of the situation, however, there unfortunately is no universal answer like "just create a viral YouTube video of John Shook teaching pull systems to cute little kittens." All I can do is pretend to be Socrates for a moment and ask you questions designed to help you solve the specific problems of selling lean to your colleagues:

Who Is the Customer? No, not the end-customer or next person in line, but who is the customer of lean itself? Future practitioners maybe? Are we treating them like actual customers? Sales 101 tells us that we should be speaking in the customer's language. Learning a different way of thinking is hard enough, but learning a different language and context at the same time is extra confusing. Aerospace technicians need help understanding how these concepts apply to aerospace work in the language of aerospace. And we shouldn't blame the customer when the product fails to satisfy them. I can't count the number of times I've witnessed consultants or internal coaches complaining (snootily in spotty Japanese) that lean failed because "they just didn't do it right." Hmmm … or maybe the product and delivery are defective and the salesperson has a less than humble attitude?

What Is the Value Proposition? A good value proposition tells the customer IN VERY SIMPLE TERMS(!) what the product / service is, what problem (specific pain or pleasure points) it solves, why it's a valuable solution, why it's better than the alternatives, and then gives verifiable claims as to why the customer should expect similar results. Think of this as a good "elevator pitch." I've heard lots of different definitions of what lean is, but never a concise, emotionally-charged, truly compelling value proposition. Potential customers only give salespeople a few seconds to hook them enough to continue the selling process, so a good value proposition is crucial.

What Is the Brand and Who Influences It? Brands are complex mental models of all the different attributes and feelings related to products, services, and organizations. Apple is a brand and so are the iPhone and iTunes. Lean is a brand too. Brands reside in customer's minds and result from their lifetime of interactions. Brands are critical because their related emotions significantly impact decision-making shortcuts. If the CEO feels warm and fuzzy about lean (but not so much about six sigma or business process management) then there is a much higher likelihood that she will "buy" lean over her other choices. But related to the value proposition problem is the fact that so many different parties (consultants, authors, educational institutions, media, competing methodologies) are more and more broadly defining what lean could mean. That variation leads to confusion and therefore negative emotions in customers' minds. There is not one of us that could control what "lean" means to the world, but we certainly can influence it positively within our own organization. That is exactly what Apple, Wal-Mart, Google, and Toyota have all done. Each do many "lean" things, but you will note that none are really big on using the term "lean." In other words, they sell it to themselves by making it their own brand - like Toyota did with the "Toyota Production System."

What (True) Story Can You Tell? Stories help selling for some very scientific reasons. Stories engage the listener, are easier to remember, are emotional, and based on some very specific brain cells that we all have (called mirror neurons), help listeners feel like they themselves are part of the action. PowerPoint slides with lots of graphs? Not so much. But for stories to work, they also need to be credible and applicable. Telling a group of Appalachian coal miners tales about the workers in a Toyota City plant probably won't have the same impact as a story about a lean Pennsylvania limestone quarry.

Who Are the New Lean Evangelists and How Do We Engage Them In Promoting Our Cause? General Motors recently stopped advertising on Facebook. What they learned was that "Likes" don't really mean much when it comes to spreading the word and generating sales. Many people apparently "like" lean too, but for further market penetration, we need much more than the same people talking amongst themselves at the same conferences. Eric Ries has recently, and very successfully, brought lean to what we would consider a non-traditional market of startup companies through his book The Lean Startup. Who are the next 100 or 1,000 Erics and how do we engage them? Who are the potential evangelists in your organization?

How Do You Manage Customer Expectations? A good portion of how satisfied we are with products depends on what we anticipated going in. I have much higher durability expectations for my more expensive Craftsman tools than I do for anything generic, yet I consider them both to be of acceptable enough value to purchase. There is no doubt that lean is difficult, but it does our brand no good to have many unhappy prior customers who tell all their friends bad things about their failed implementations. Being realistic about implementation expectations helps filter out the wrong types of customers – those that aren't committed enough or those that may need a different type of improvement solution to whatever problems they face. A related problem is overselling lean results. Just because Toyota does XYZ and is successful does not for a moment mean that everyone else will get the same outcome from XYZ. Your results not just may vary, but probably will vary.

What Sales Experiment Can You Run? Every very successful marketing organization that I am aware of (like Proctor & Gamble or Amazon) has learned that promotion is actually much more science than art. Most consumers are unaware of just how many experiments are being performed on them every day to get them to buy more, sign organ donor cards, or vote for a particular political party. The reason that the scientific method is emerging so strongly in sales is because our imperfect human brain is far too complex to influence at our whim. The naturalist, Lyall Watson, said it best: "If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't." Consequentially, it is up to us to learn precisely the best ways to sell lean in our own organizations. But if we set up some good experiments, or compare and contrast what methods and situations work versus don't, we stand a much better chance of achieving our sales goals. The next time some newbie you talk to gets excited over lean, why not ask them why? But just once - it's too early in the selling process to start annoying them.

What Is the Call to Action? Think of this as a pull signal to the customer. Many a sale has been lost because the salesperson didn't actually ask the customer to perform some specific next step like sign the petition, donate $5.00, or take the blender home and try it for 30 days. This is especially true for new products and services when the customer has no similar history that they can leverage mentally. So if you've successfully gotten past the value proposition, what do you want your customer to do next? Read a specific article or book? Watch a particular video? Take an LEI class? (sorry, I couldn't help myself on product placement)

So I am very sorry I couldn't reveal any silver bullets, fool-proof 10 step improvement plans, or even a good advertising tagline for lean – just some more hard work and science. But at least I can leave you with a call to action: What are you going to do differently to improve the way you sell lean in your organization?

Brent Wahba is the author of The Fluff Cycle (And How To End It By Solving Real Sales & Marketing Problems) and the instructor of LEI's Lean Fundamentals for Sales Organizations workshop.

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