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.

Paperless life is a Lean life

About a year ago I completely switched to a paperless lifestyle inspired by Evernote ambassador and writer, Jamie Rubin. What started as a personal productivity tool transformed many aspects of my business life as well.

In fact, I realized how anti-Lean paper based life is. At its core, paper is wasteful (recycling has waste also), and paper based processing has many anti-Lean characteristics: it requires several steps of re-processing (entering data captured on paper for electronic processing, sharing or storage), over processing required to find any information captured on paper or recovering any paper-based information lost. The more I have been without paper, the more I question any value (beyond aesthetics) paper can add to our life and our businesses.

It has been almost a year for me being completely paperless. No Moleskines, no notes everything goes into Evernote through Penultimate or IFTTT. I do not keep paper receipts, photos or anything that can be stored electronically. Todo lists are in Toodledo or Trello. Everything else is in Evernote, which in turn is backed up into Google Drive and Dropbox. All have 2-factor authentication for security. The best part is, everything I am looking for I can find in seconds. It would have taken me weeks sometimes to find an old document or receipt. Long live the end of paper waste. I highly recommend the paperless journey to everyone. The best primer, of course, is by Jamie here.


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.


Can Telemarketers Really Be Lean?

Last night I received several telemarketing calls from a well known Lean Six Sigma company. I didn’t get upset. I got curious…

Interestingly a lot of Lean efforts are focused on inside sales, inside marketing both inbound and outbound. The key argument for selecting these processes over large account management or channel sales is that they are more structured and flow-like.

This is partially based on the age-old debate of sales being art vs. science. At least direct sales, large account sales are typically more solution focused and involve the customer even in non-Lean shops.
What troubles me about published lean transformations in outbound telemarketing or telesales is how the voice of the customer gets lost.

Do we honestly believe, as Lean professionals that there is massive customer pull for unsolicited outbound customer calls?
Sales organizations should find more ways to discover customer needs, offer promotions in ways the customer prefers (rarely tele) and lean out the inbound sales teams instead so they give the customer a rock star experience.

By definition, sales will never become Lean until sales leadership stops PUSH and allow the customer to PULL and then serve them like crazy….


Making Sales Workflow Visible

There seems to be many reasons why sales teams struggle to adopt Lean. Apart from repetitive and structured sales areas like inside sales, complex and large account selling is perceived to be more of an art than science. Mostly because the great salespeople in large value sales functions are treated more like rock stars than line workers.
While all large sales organizations have established sales processes and training, in my experience most practitioners follow their gut and not the defined process except in areas of compliance and approvals.

There are great opportunities for all organizations to define the Perfect Sales Cycle (as standard work) and measure the effectiveness and efficiency around the defined process.
A good first step towards this goal is making the team’s actual tasks and activities visible to themselves and the team. The Kanban Method that works so well in the creative work of software development is perfect for the creative art and science of sales as well.

Going back to the 2 rules of Kanban has and will transform many sales teams on their eventual Lean journey:
1) make work visible (put everything on your team’s Kanban board)
2) limit work in progress (juggle only a few things every day, week and month)

I use both a physical kanban board in my office for my global team and Trello for virtual kanban board for all to see. Everyone on the global team sees everyone else’s tasks.

Once the Lean journey starts, the non-value added tasks will shrink by 40-50% and that immediately doubles the available selling time. Once selling time doubles, so does customer satisfaction, revenues, commissions and overall team rewards.
And that as we know, more than anything, will convince sales teams to get with the program…
kanban board

Lean In or Lean Out?

Most of the Lean literature is about heroic efforts to reduce waste and process inefficiencies at large (and small) complex operations. With the exception of the Lean Startup / Agile movement, much less is focused on building businesses and companies with Lean thinking.

Even in large corporations, once you leave the factories new innovations, product lines, sales approaches and market units get launched on top of old thinking and processes. Some of these initiatives fail for that very reason, the traditional operation or performance engine does not allow for a more agile business model and most initiatives are under-staffed and under-resourced so they cannot produce the wasteful staffing levels and process complexities the old model requires.

I’m a big fan of the ‘starving startup’ model in big companies and have run many of them. Customer facing initiatives in sales and services should start with a blank business model canvas (or Lean Canvas) and design/iterate a lean process.
The main advantage is that it is unlikely that complex, overburdened and wasteful processes and cost structures will result. The side benefit is that the company will create lean thinkers, leaders and entrepreneurs that can tackle the harder challenges of leaning out the core. But now, they have organizational proof and credibility. Which in most corporate programs is the lion share of the battle.

Kaizen workshops may start resembling more of the pivot/sprint retrospectives of Agile and Kanban Method than traditional incremental improvements of an established process. Eventually in a big corporation the two approaches will meet in the middle as corporate startups and initiatives grow up, get overfunded, over-resourced and complacent. But by then our lean startup leaders, thinkers and builders in the team are ready…

(c) 2012 – Sacha Chua – (under Creative Commons Canada 2.5)

Why Airlines Struggle with Lean Sales and Service

As I search for great sales lean models I also learn from bad ones. Since James Womack talked about airline issues in Lean Solutions a decade ago not much has changed… Since I fly a lot I get to think about their ‘customer service’ approach quite a bit.

You would think that an industry that is permanently in the red would be the first to embrace Lean. While you hear that fixed equipment costs and labor contracts are hard to change however the is still so much to do to gain customer loyalty especially for the business traveler (I.e. most profitable segment). But it isn’t happening. While many airlines ‘lean out’ their MRO operations, frankly it is useless when business travelers switch to Singapore Airlines or Virgin for better customer service from a carrier with operating-room-quality 5S-optimized spare parts stores… So let’s all go back to the customer interface for answers and not the stockroom.

Traveling to Asia or the Middle East allows us to establish a work standard for service long lost on the American airline industry and trace back to the enormous value creation opportunities.
The business segment is much less price sensitive and in fact the perfect testing ground for lean principles: get me what I want, when I want, how I want within my price parameters.

Despite fierce competition in the economy travel segment, business class fares vary as much as 100-150% for major routes. So there is immense value opportunity.

Some airline structural issues even business travelers cannot overcome, like the need to fly though our hubs and connect. (Southwest solved this but I digress..)

Other non-value added processes could be more easily improved

1) Almost all queuing problems and capacity issues could be simply eliminated in this industry. All travel plans are known with high degree of certainty (except cancellations). The customers demand (number of passengers) and timing is clear. There should not be any surprise whatsoever on how many travelers are coming. How about giving all travelers a specific time windows (8:30-8:35) to enter the TSA checkpoint for expedited processing. If you are late, you are back to batch and queue.

2) – Parking companies could provide fixed time/parking spot for expedited scheduling and rescheduling in case of traffic delays.

3) Many checking counters are already well automated including bag-drop. Why is there still a line and many machines down? Conveyor belts… Figure it out…

3) – There is no reason anyone should stand in line at security. The travelers are known, their belongings could be scanned to take time. Exception processing (rework) is well defined. . Pre-check is established.

4) You shall never have to wait for your bags. All arriving passenger and the number of bags are known hours in advance. It is possible to get the bags to the belt in 15 minutes. Just connect the dots.

All real chaos starts in customer facing processes…

1) Most boarding processes are inconsistent. This should be fixed one and for all. Follow the process and you are at the back of the queue. Process variability absolutely kills boarding. Hold people to the boarding sequence and baggage rules. Watch Southwest do it and have happy customers.

2) Cancellation management is abysmal for most airlines. Why is it so hard? All variables are known. Number of passengers, alternative routes, airlines, cross-change agreements, fare schedules. This changeover / setup should be entirely automated and immediate. Especially because cancellation is when airlines are most likely to lose paying customers. Totally preventable.

3) Why can’t airlines recognize the phone number we are calling from like credit card companies. It is a very trivial telephony feature. Accelerate problem resolution, reduce customer queuing.

Airlines may be losing even more money because they think they are fixing the right problems (MRO, labor, logistics) when the right problems are customers getting frustrated and the most profitable customer segments taking their business elsewhere.

no queues

Lean Sales Baby Steps

Introducing Lean to sales teams can run into the overall resistance against process, structure and creativity. The more strategic sales processes get the more likely the resistance. We can find many successful implementations of lean in mass marketing, inside sales, call centers, telesales and customer service functions that deal with discrete repeatable elements of work: phone calls, campaigns and events. There are much fewer lean approaches in complex enterprise sales environments where processes are extremely variable (whether they should be or not) and great salespeople are treated more like rock stars and artists than assembly workers.

I do believe high growth sales organizations need to ease into Lean in a few ways:
– focus on the principles not the tools (hint: few salespeople want six sigma talks)
– emphasize that process waste is directly waste of selling time, revenues and thus commissions and bonuses

Start with easier rules:

1) make work visual (Kanban boards or weekly plans) and have daily/weekly/monthly plans (great salespeople are planners)
2) reduce non-customer facing activity like admin and reporting (most salespeople will LOVE this)
3) reduce the number of things being juggled (few customers provide most revenues – serve them best)
4) solve problems together (everyone should help the salespeople to win, because they represent the voice of the customer)