Dear Gemba Coach,
I’m in a company that is trying to implement lean but sees it simply as a series of rote steps to iterate without the sort of passion by leadership inherent in a successful journey. What can we do to instill some passion?
That is a very tough question. The underlying problem is clarifying the difference between output and outcome. For instance, I recently was talking to the sales manager of a sales-driven company and his CEO. I asked them what was their theory of sales – what was the ideal sales process?
The sales manager answered: we need to generate as many leads as we can, treat as many as we can, and convert as many of those leads as we can into a sale.
The CEO – and founder of the company – answered: people are afraid of salesmen, people buy from people they like, you have to find common ground with the person, and then build the sale on that.
Both answers make sense. One is focused on guaranteeing process output, generating a volume of sales. The other on process outcome, generating a good sale.
Two Visions of a Process
The sales manager has a classic technocratic outlook. He’s got a sales network to run and needs to deliver a total sales amount. The CEO is ambivalent about this – on the one hand, he really wants good sales, where customers are happy because he knows in his bones the reputation of the company is what will generate future sales –- he built the company that way.
But he also gives ambitious sales targets to his sales manager and the incentives that go with them. Not surprisingly, the sales manager thinks that he’ll first secure the output, and then worry about outcomes –- who can blame him?
But of course, these two visions of the process are not aligned. One can clearly imagine scenarios where changes to the process to generate more leads, etc., will go against the quality of each individual sale. Pressuring salespeople to deal with more leads, to call more, to convert more, can easily make them lose the focus on the individual, human, purchaser and miss establishing the kind of trust relationship the CEO was so good at when he founded the company.
On the other hand, not everyone has the CEO’s knack to make you feel at home in a few words without sounding prying or creepy. Many salespeople have to work at it, which takes time – and slows the treatment of leads.
“What should we do differently?” asked the sales manager. “Ask people, ‘How can I help?’ and mean it,” answered the CEO. And here is the rub at the core of the question you ask. We can force every salesperson in the company to start every conversation with “How can I help?” – but we can’t make them mean it.
From a lean perspective, you can ask yourself: what do the sales manager and the CEO each want to make repeatable?
Good Sales and Bad Sales
The sales manager seeks to make the people-free part of the process repeatable. He wants to make sure that salespeople have the right Materials (leads), the right Machines (IT systems), right Manpower (number of trained staff to process the leads) and the right Methods (and he’s eager to include any tip from his CEO in the “standard” sales method). And there’s nothing wrong with that other than the risk of making the process more repeatable on the wrong things could generate more bad sales – and loss of company reputation, loss of overall sales, etc.
The CEO wants to make good sales repeatable. This is a completely different process. He’d like each of his salespersons to reflect on their own selling technique, to study every lost sales and question what they missed (the sales system won’t even count purchasers that step out without buying), to have opinions on what they do right, what they do wrong and what they’re trying to change.
Now, the trick is that you can’t get right fixing the 4Ms in a process people-free if you don’t seek to distinguish good outcomes from bad. To answer your questions directly, most managers feel they first need to fix the output and then, when they’re grown up, they’ll look into outcomes. That’s plain silly. One has to have outcomes in mind all along to discover the right changes to fix processes the right way.
Lean is a system for the continuous development of people. As regards to lean, the sales manager is happy to apply the lean tools as steps or activities that will help him improve to make his output process more repeatable – and so has to standardize all Manpower, Materials, Machine, Method to do so.
The CEO looks to lean for a system of self-study to challenge each of his salespersons to think more deeply about their activity and become better at it. He hopes that by developing a culture of purpose, problem solving, and improvement he’ll improve the company as a whole, supporting sustainable, profitable growth.
Rote but With Reflection
I don’t know how we can inspire senior leaders in doing so – many I meet just want to get the job done and survive another day, and what really matters is spot share price. But we can start by clarifying better that:
- Producing more value by fixing processes works when you have an unfair advantage on the market and there is space for natural growth.
- In a saturated, demanding market, competitiveness can be found in adding value – encouraging each person to be better at their job and come up with improvement ideas. Recent science shows that the flow of ideas sustains the overall performance – not process uniformization.
Standards, really, are the steps and knowledge needed to make any activity repeatable – all the more so when it’s not production and repeatability is a challenge in itself. So rote steps are not a bad thing by themselves. Rote steps without seeking better outcomes can indeed lead to disappointing – not to say negative – results.
The steps are the basis for self-reflection – knowing what you know – but the starting point, not the be-all and end-all. Lean starts when you start exploring what goes wrong with the rote steps and look for local countermeasures to better understand the outcomes we seek beyond outputs.