Scrum Boards for Agile Sales

While more and more organizations want their sales teams to be agile, these initiatives settle in the familiar pattern of using tools invented for one function and force fit for another. And sales rarely fits anything overly structured. Most sales organizations don’t have consistent sales methodology and if there is one, process adherence is in the low double digits at best.

The process exceptions are mostly outside our control and therefore estimating tasks, sprints and completion time are very inconsistent. Great sales organizations close 30-40% of their deals. Basically working with 60-70% process waste. No other business function would survive with these waste levels. Sales operates with baseball odds where a consistent 33% hit rate is absolutely world class. That makes process adherence, linearity and forecast accuracy quite difficult.

As we settle in for our 6th year of using agile for sales (kanban), I worked with some teams inside and outside SAP on scrum for sales as well and there are now more proof-points and tools out there. Some of my thoughts on sales scrum vs sales kanban.

  • Simple kanban boards with basic agile flow are easier to implement and adhere to for sales teams starting out  (Backlog can be leads, Sprints are quarters or months, Todo, Pending and Done require no sales training)
  • Teaching sales teams product development scrum terms is not value added, especially because we want sales teams to be customer focused and not product focused. This one lesson we need to learn from Lean.
  • Most sales teams are well disciplined around sales stages (from lead to close) and those sales stages can be considered sprints and a 6-9-month sales cycle a major product release
  • Most sales organizations already measure deal time in stages, linearity and other predictive metrics. They are easy to implement in an agile board
  • Daily standups in sales are like watching paint dry. Things don’t move that fast. The sweet spot seems to be weekly and fortunately the weekly forecast calls can be expanded to have the structure of an agile standup. 15-minutes? Probably highly aspirational.
  • Sales teams may need a lot more cross-functional collaboration than dev teams. Having outside orgs participate in forecast (standup) calls, or even conducting meta-standups with customers and executive teams can be great. We learned a lot by having quarterly customer forecast meetings (QBRs).
  • Use tools that make the job easier. Sales folks who hate CRM still like kanban boards. We’ve used Trello for years and now see many new companies cater to the needs of agile sales, like
  • Sales teams are virtual. Kanban boards, burndown charts, forecast standups and retrospectives all need to be virtual too. Great tools can make or break team communication.
  • Burndown charts are great to view sales linearity in a way that linearity percentages cannot possibly communicate.

Agile Sales – 4 Years On

After 4 Years of Agile Sales (LEAN as we called it) – there are many new learnings. Sticking to our focus on the standards of Lean Sales instead of some theoretical procedures, we can now take inventory of what worked at what didn’t so far. Today’s post is about what worked well. In a later post I’ll address innovation we are doing on things that did not work well or at all.
As a reminder here is the link to our original vision of how to set up your Sales Kanban.


Delivering on the WHY
The primary reason was to double the effectiveness of the team in terms of both pipeline and revenues per person as well as deal quality (net new vs existing customers). We definitely accomplished both objectives and that should now be table stakes.

Focus on customer value creation
We constantly validate our ideas with customers and shut down events, meetings and other activities that they do not see value in.  Same with the so-called “business value added” (i.e. internal) activities. We prioritize internal requests by how badly the other party needs our involvement and output.

Make the team’s work visible
Maybe a year late but we are getting close to where I thought we could be in a few months. There are practically no status updates except on our Kanban boards (Trello) and in our KPI systems (forecast). Most team members update their task lists, track their progress on a daily basis. There is a measurable difference in work output for those in our team that work in a Lean way vs those that do not.  We systematically eliminated many non-value added activities and projects and many team members routinely pivot on their project direction as a matter of business without requiring major reviews, offsites etc.
As a sales leader i can see 70-80% of activities, comment on bottlenecks, share best practices, intervene on bottlenecks. Given this is a completely dispersed virtual team with practically no face-time – I consider this the ultimate win

Limit the tasks you are juggling
Reducing WIP is forced through questioning what is adding value and by limiting available resources. Most of the teams simply do not have the resources for worthless projects and parallel activities

Measure your effectiveness
We keep the KPIs simple and focus it all on customer value add. Given we are in sales all activities are prioritized and measured in 3 categories:  1) deal origination (net new business) 2) deal influence (moving existing opportunities forward) 3) support (supporting internal teams). The percentage of time and revenue associated with each of these priorities are strictly measured against a predefined target allocation of pipeline and revenues. We did not do daily standups but our forecast calls were weekly standups of sort where we dealt with target effort, time and blockers.

Continously strive to improve
A lot of this actually happens as part of the work being visible and KPIs constantly reviewed.  We still do our version of Kaizen events in leadership offsites but the focus is less on strategic and tactical pivoting (which happens as a matter of daily business) but more on execution.


Ikigai Wisdom of a Shipping Magnate

I was traveling from Korea to China last week when I met the gentleman in this story. He has a dozen companies in trade and shipping based in Hong Kong. He described to me that his clients were from all over the world from Germany through China to South Africa. He joked that the sun never sets in his business and the emails never stop.
“We will all die with our inbox full”.

Predictably we ended up talking about managing time, keeping focus and producing results. I was especially curious as he ran his businesses as a family enterprise. How do you find the time? I showed him our kanban boards and we joked about carrying paper planners in the past. Then he got serious and spoke about Ikigai.

I had never met a person who managed their time based on Ikigai. For me it was more like a philosophy of life, keeping things in perspective, but certainly not a methodology. For him, it was guiding his daily priorities. After a long discussion his methodology boiled down to this:


  1. Keep a running list of projects and tasks as they occur to you  (like GTD)
  2. Every morning review the list and for each item ask the following:
    1. Am I skilled to handle this task?
    2. Am I excited to do this?
    3. Will I get paid to do it (or lose money if I don’t)?
    4. Will the world be a better place if I do it?
  3. If the answer is NO to the above, delete or ignore the task. 
  4. For the tasks that remain, prioritize them as follows:
    1. MUST DO  – Excited about, have the skills, will get paid for it
    2. SHOULD DOExcited about and the world will be better
    3. DO LATER  – Not exciting but have the skills and will get paid for it
    4. DELEGATENot exciting and don’t have the skills but paid to do it

I noticed I started asking myself more of his Ikigai questions.

70% Time Savings of Trello

I recently looked at 500 completed Trello cards and estimated processing time with the Kanban board and without it. For example, if a card had status updates over several weeks, we assumed that those updates would have happened with meetings or email updates without Trello. Similar approaches were taken for other tasks like event planning and customer followups. If there was no way of estimating the improvement, we conservatively assumed there was none.

This methodology gave us the following results. While it is not a full time/motion study, it gave us clear indication where the biggest impact of the kanban approach is.

The results assume the following 3 key criteria for all tasks and boards:

  • All team members collaborate on each other’s boards and tasks
  • Each card has a due date and owner(s) assigned
  • Each team member follows up on notifications or tasks due

Here are the savings we found:

  • Typical project status updates – up to 70% time saved
    ( Traditional project update meetings: 1 hour a week – Trello updates 5-10 minutes per week through comments and alerts) Assuming 100 project boards – 83 hours a week can be saved
  • Searching through email for contextual information – up to 60% time saved
    This is harder to quantify but finding all project or task related information is almost impossible in Outlook as it is conversation based and not project based- Typical search estimated at 10-12 hours a week, vs Trello search less than 1-2 hours a week as most information is project based – however multiple boards may need to be searched for related content
  • Finding reference documents – a wash
    Trello is not a better or worse repository of documents
  • Keeping people in the loop, managing overlapping tasksorder of magnitude. Traditional email or reporting systems have no easy way of showing what others are working on. In Trello I always know what everyone is doing, especially if the rule is that unless it is recorded in Trello it does not count.
    The capability is clearly there, but sometimes people do not record every action or forget to check for overlapping activities. This can be made easy through the many web services integrations with Trello (Zapier or IFTTT) and also through in-Trello automation through powerups like Butler. Will cover those in a later post.

The Illusion of a Personal Workflow

One of the biggest learnings after 5 years of personal kanban is that most people have no defined workflow at all. Or rather, they have incoming communication as an illusion of workflow. Most people are not paid to answer emails and chats, yet that is typically what constitutes work triggers for many.

Real workflow should start with what you are supposed to accomplish this year, month, week or day, what resources are needed for that and what communication is necessary at what stage. Then you can decide when to tap into emails, social media or Slack.

Many people are driven by the email workflow illusion. If you take emails away, some people have no idea what they are supposed to do. Defining the goals, weekly or daily targets (does not have to be a sprint) is critical in defining workflow. The Lean Kanban principles are helpful judging whether we have the right workflow for ourselves.

We should be able to answer these 5 questions at any time without a single meeting:

  • What are the key outcomes I am working on?
  • Which of these add value to the customers?
  • What are the key results my team members are working on?
  • Where do we need to collaborate?
  • How am I measuring the results of those tasks?

A good Kanban board should give you the answers to these.

The Magic of Trello Search Across Kanban Boards

We’ve been using Trello boards for 5 years now. Since our team members are scattered across the globe, keeping tabs on what everyone is working on can be complicated. Emails are rarely helping.

Following our LEAN principles, we all made all our work visible to others. Everyone is free to adapt Trello to their own workflow needs. Nowadays we have over 100 business and shared personal boards and no-one can be expected to check every one of them for items relevant to their own work or having a deadline.

A couple of simple tricks allow me and my team to stay on top of everything that is going on in minutes a day:

  • Add yourself to every card where you want to be notified of updates or deadlines. Add others to your cards if you want them to be notified.
  • Make sure tasks have a deadline
  • Use searches to find overlapping activities and deadlines for yourself or others
  • Make all your tasks visible to those who need to know.

In my daily workflow I follow the above rules and also use a couple of favorite Trello searches. These searches have saved me hours of searching for status updates, deadlines, documents and overlapping activities.

  • My most favorite search:   @me due:7  This single search allows me to see all activities where I have to finish something across hundreds of tasks on dozens of boards. I ether work on them or at least comment on the card – letting those waiting for me know when things will be done. A small step to eradicate the disease of endless corporate waiting loop.

There are a few other searches I use every day. Here is a list.

Finally a New Book on Lean Selling

The 4 years we’ve been experimenting with our lean kanban sales model, there have been very few developments in the broader lean community on the lean sales process. The Lean Enterprise Institute only has one course listed, Delphi’s former lean sales pioneer Brent Wahba‘s lean sales course and to my knowledge it has not been scheduled for a while.

It was great to see Robert Prior’s Lean Selling book, which is a very thorough treatment of the sales process with a lean focus. The book covers the major lean areas (5 why’s, making things visual, KPIs, types of waste, voice of the customer, value stream mapping, flow, etc) it provides almost a day-by-day roadmap to implementing lean in sales. Comparing sales to customer service (where lean has largely spread) helps take the myth away that sales is an art and not a process.

While the book is rooted more in the traditional lean principles than personal kanban type of visual processes that we are focused on, it is still the best book on the lean selling topic in the last few years.

Organizational Overwhelm – a Silent Killer

There was a saying in my business school: “If you cannot get your job done in 8 hours you are not qualified to do it”. Funny. Yet there may be some truth to that statement.

Increasingly we are interdependent in our ability to complete tasks and produce results. At the same time the tools managers use for personal and business productivity lag behind the times. Forget David Allen’s suggested Empty Inbox – the average manager may have hundreds or even thousands unopened emails in their Inbox.

While we may get increasingly behind in our own workload and tasks and are barely able to juggle even the most important tasks, the downstream effect can be devastating in organizations. A silent killer of sorts. The unprocessed emails cause other teams depending on the email responses to either re-process (resend) the email or put their tasks on hold. This again causes downstream activities to be reprocessed or put on a forced hold, until this chain reaction finally impacts the customer. Then commitments get skirted, renegotiated, orders get lost or prices get discounted to appease customers.

One way or another the organization suffers. It is a silent killer because it almost never gets measured. Cypress Semiconductor decades ago developed what they then called the Killer Software to manage exactly this: the commitments people make to each other and measure what they do or do not deliver.

The (LEAN) world would do very well by re-reading Cypress founder TJ Rodger’s original high performance vision in his 1993 classic, No Excuses Management. Maybe there is hope in clearing that email and organizational backlog and with that all that waste, reprocessing and frustration stuck emails can cause. ngfdssfsd

Do not ignore Lean’s most important rule – customer focus

Lean should be all about the customer and processes driven by the customer. Yet many organizations focus on processes that do not interact with the end-customer. In large organization it is naive to assume that internal customers of departments can properly represent the requirements of the end customers of the business.

After a year of doing Lean on the front line of a sales business and interacting with back office Lean initiatives in areas like product development, finance, IT or procurement I concluded the following: unless you are a consultant and making a living running lean initiatives, you should only do them if the following are true:

1) Lean should start in customer facing functions before moving inward

I know this is almost a heresy because any self-respecting Lean expert would have excuses like: sales teams do not follow processes, cannot define standard work, generate too much waste, etc. Manufacturing or back-office functions on the other hand get praised for discipline, process visibility and focus. Maybe. Nothing changes the fact that none of those functions directy address the needs of the end-customer. If we heed the definition of value added work (a solution that exactly meets the customer’s needs and they would pay for) then let’s put the primary interface to the customer (sales/marketing) back in the equation so we can finally live up to that high standard of Value Add. Then the chain is no longer broken and sales can be manufacturing’s customer and manufacturing can be that for procurement and supply chain. And all of them to finance, IT, contracts and so on.

2) All work should be visible. Not just your team’s

One of our biggest experiments in our Lean journey was this: instead of just having visibility to one sales team’s work, our entire global organizations had visibility to everyone else’s tasks, goals, activities and challenges. Also had a single Rolodex of global contacts with all sales activity visible to all. If someone halfway across the world was solving a problem I was trying to – I saw it. If someone was waiting for something downstream from me, I could act.
It is a single global Kanban board where all activities, tasks and KPIs are visible to all. This allows sharing best practices, avoids hiding problems and overall creates great agility in areas like sales which is primarily information based.

3) Reinforce the new process

When we moved to a global Kanban board (Trello) and a global CRM, my email traffic dropped significantly. Most of the questions in the past about who was talking to this or that customer (CRM) or whether anyone was working on a similar project (Kanban) or whether there were some good references etc were all solved by content visible to all. Then I stopped responding to emails about information already available in LEAN tools or just sent the link to the relevant content in those tools. Any behavior change needs to be reinforced before it is ingrained. It starts with those instigating the change and they should never go back to the old ways.

Trello boards

Lessons from a Sales Kaizen Blitz

As we started this Lean journey I probably spoke with a dozen Lean practitioners both inside and outside sales. Many advised me to focus on standardizing the work we are doing then create a value stream map and focus on incremental improvements. This, in time, would yield significant reduction of waste and increased efficiencies.

Standardizing sales behavior is hard even in the most transactional environments. We are dealing with customers that expect new ideas, creativity and insight – not easily charted on a whiteboard. So we took a different tack and returned to our top 2 adopted Lean principles:

1) focusing on customer pull and
2) limiting non-value added activities (and WIP).

Customer Pull focus takes you away from cost and efficiency and sets your sight on effectiveness. To what extent you are delivering what the customer needs.
We set our key performance indicators entirely on this basis for the workshop:
– revenue per person
– % of net new deals (as leading indicator of new customer interest)

To visualize non-value added tasks, we captured all major tasks and activities on sticky notes and boards that the team was engaged in and categorized them strictly in customer value added and non-value added groups. Value added had to be something that a customer would pay money, time or resources for. In case of doubt, we had a customer in the meeting to validate.

Astonishingly we were able to reduce our activities by 60-70%. Some became necessary evils, what the Lean world calls “business value added”. This meant non-value added but things we had to do, like internal communication, reports, marketing (not always customer value added). All business value added tasks were targeted for delegation to other support organizations away from the customer facing roles. In some cases we delegated these further outside, i.e. outsourced.

Top Learnings from our week of Kaizen Blitz

1) Eliminate 60-70% of non-value added sales activities and that effectively triples the time available for customer value added activities, like selling. When you triple selling time, you can reasonably expect similar growth in productivity

2) Make everyone’s tasks visible to everyone else. Let the team members hold each other accountable. Including bosses and support staff. Everyone. We use Trello’s Kanban boards for this.

3) Delegate non-value added tasks to other organizations who can perform them more efficiently, faster and cheaper. Add these organizations to your review cycle and Trello board.

4) Create monthly sprints. Create tasks and projects that can be completed in 30 days and measure those. Sales likes longer horizons for deals, like quarters. Don’t let that happen. Be agile.

5) Review your board weekly. Make elimination of non-value added part of the weekly review. Reprioritize constantly to make sure no waste slips back in.