So much of what our focus in “modern selling,” seems to be the adaptation of Lean Manufacturing techniques into selling. We’ve created “assembly lines” with specialized functions, passing our customers from one station to the next. All our focus is on efficiency, eliminating any wasted effort–either through not doing it, or through automation of the tasks.
But somehow, we’ve missed some very important principles in Lean Manufacturing. They are the fundamentals that make this so important in making lean manufacturing work.
One of the fundamental principles is “Elimination of Waste.” This can be interpreted in a variety of ways–wasted motion, wasted steps/activities, time delays. One of the biggest areas of waste is the product itself. If, somehow, in the manufacturing process, an error is made, we create “scrap.”
This is so fundamental to Lean Manufacturing, I’ll repeat it. Regardless how “efficiently” the line worked, if the product it was manufacturing was flawed or wrong in any way, it was scrap or waste.
Scrap or waste is one of the most grievous problems in manufacturing. It means, we’ve wasted money, resources, and time making a product that we just have to throw away. Since lean manufacturing focuses on a “pull” concept. It, also, means that we fail to meet a customer commitment. As a result, elimination of Scap, is critical for Lean Manufacturing.
In the “old days,” before Lean, there used to be things like “inspection stations” or “quality control.” People whose job was solely to make sure the product being assembled was correct. They used to pull bad products off the line, scrapping them. But often, they did nothing to identify and eliminate the problem that caused the scrap or waste.
In Lean, a goal was to eliminate inspection, making sure each step of the manufacturing process worked without error.
What happened, when something went wrong? In a lean factory line, the entire line would stop. Typically, the malfunctioning machine or step in the process would have a bright light flashing. Everyone would converge on that problem area. People would assess the problem, understanding what was causing it, figuring out how to fix it. But no other manufacturing would be done on that line, since it would only be creating scrap or waste.
This is a fundamental we have missed in our adaptation of lean manufacturing principles to selling. When our “assembly line” isn’t producing the right product or results we aren’t stopping our work, identifying the source of the problem and fixing it. Instead, we seem to be doing exactly the opposite, we are doubling down and doing more.
For example, if our emails aren’t producing the desired results, rather than assessing why they aren’t, we just do more. Or if we aren’t getting the engagement in phone outreaches, or our customers are choosing to have rep-free buying experiences, rather than hit “pause,” we keep going, adding more volume/velocity, rather than identifying the problem and fixing the issue.
In other words, we don’t eliminate the waste or scrap, we just create more–hoping that if we keep doing more, enough results will trickle out the end of the sales assembly line.
We are doing exactly everything lean manufacturing sought to eliminate in it’s principles–reducing and eliminating any waste in the process or product that was being built.
One of the things Lean Teams did to achieve these goals was to eliminate “variation.” It eliminated variation in the techniques and processes, adapting standard processes across all the manufacturing lines. Importantly, it eliminated variation in the inputs to the process, the parts, materials, components that are used in making a product. By eliminating that variation, it could reduce waste and scrap to fractions of a percent.
This focus on eliminating variation produced huge improvements in manufacturing output. Rather than chalking up waste and scrap as a cost of doing business, the eliminating variation, reduced those costs tremendously.
There were however, some limitations to this. There might be some changes to the product in the line, causing the adaption of Flexible Manufacturing Principles. There were ways they could adapt modular product design to accommodate certain differences in products, but to be able to accommodate those in the manufacturing process. There were cooperative work teams that might cluster to work on those parts of the process where there had to be variation–so these teams working together, adapting to the variations could produce a high quality product or component.
Flexible manufacturing techniques were Lean’s approach to dealing with challenges where the variation in inputs or processes could not or should not be eliminated.
Now this brings us to a fundamental flaw in our thinking in our adaptation of lean manufacturing techniques to selling. We cannot manage or control the variation! In fact the variation is infinite! Each customer situation is different, each customer involved in the buying process is different, and all of these change from moment to moment.
The issue we face is, “how do we manage this with minimal waste and scrap?” How do we manage constant variation in the process?
We can reduce some of it, for example, our ICP reduces some of it. Focusing on a set of customers that have similar or common issues/challenges/needs reduces the variation–versus going after anyone that fogs a mirror. Some buying efforts are relatively well known and standardized–both by the buyer and, consequently, by the seller. Perhaps it’s because they buy frequently causing both they and us to be knowledgeable in handling the situations. Or the risk of failure is very low. We can develop very standard/formularized processes for dealing with those—though we do accept certain amounts of “scrap/waste.” (Though a manufacturer would shudder when she hears that we accept 15-20% positive outcomes from the assembly line. They are thinking, “I would be fired if 80-85% of the product I produced was scrapped…..”
Then there are those where the variability from situation to situation, and from time to time within those situations will be highly variable. The way manufacturers deal with this is highly agile/adaptable teams, that can understand and address the issues they face as they arise.
We can learn a lot from lean manufacturing. There are limits to what we can adopt and the result we can produce. Where in manufacturing products, we can reduce error, waste, scrap to fractions of a percent, it is unlikely that we can achieve these levels in complex B2B. But we do see agile/adaptable sellers who can achieve 80-90% success for their work efforts.
We need to think about what it means to achieve our quotas. How do we minimize waste, scrap, error in achieving these. It’s not an issue of just being more efficient. It is increasing our effectiveness, agility, and adaptability.
Afterword: My apologies to those manufacturing experts reading this. Going through college, I worked three summers on manufacturing lines–so my experience is limited. Though at various point in my career, I have been deeply involved in manufacturing and manufacturers my knowledge is from learning from the best of them.
After Afterword: Some years ago, I wrote a white paper about how we adapt the Toyota Production System approaches to selling. TPC was the great grandfather to modern lean and agile manufacturing. If you want a copy, just email me.