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We Misunderstand Lean—But It Is So Important!

by David Brock on May 27th, 2013

I was having a conversation about the “state of sales” with some colleagues recently, some of the smartest people I know in looking at sales performance.  I asked them, “How are you seeing sales organizations leverage Lean concepts?”  The reaction was quick, “Oh you’re talking about eliminating waste……”

It’s a natural reaction but a real misunderstanding of Lean and Agile methods.  Sure, in Lean we eliminate waste–it’s important, but that’s not the value of lean.  And I think this misunderstanding, is why so few sales and marketing organizations don’t understand the power of Lean.

Lean has huge traction in about every part of organizations except for sales and marketing.  But if you really understand lean, it becomes compelling for sales and marketing–purely because of the clarity, focus, and simplicity it drives.

I’m not a lean expert  (Actually, I think that’s goodness), but to me what is so compelling about Lean is every conversation ALWAYS starts in the same question—Who Is The Customer?  The next step in the Lean discussion ALWAYS goes to the next question—“What does the customer value?”

The ultimate in simplicity.  In the Lean conversation, until we can answer those questions, we can’t go further.  It is impossible to talk about solutions, we can’t talk about processes, we can’t talks about systems, tools, or programs.

Two questions and the answers to those questions form the context for everything we design and do in our Go To Customer Strategies.  In Lean, we focus only on delivering what the customer values–no more–no less.  Delivering more is not adding value, but in Lean terms it is adding cost.  When we add cost, we create waste.   The magic of Lean is the intensity of focus and clarity these two questions drive—and how much it simplifies what we need to do to serve the customer and create the maximum value

But this isn’t how organizations tend to approach their Go To Market approaches today.  Classically, its’ internally driven, we tend to start with, “These are the products we create,”  “This is what we do,” “This is how we do business,” “This is how we go to market.”  We build our Go To Market strategies based on what is best for our organizations, with the customer the “victim” of how we have designed the engagement process.

Eventually the customer gets involved but they are at the end, not at the beginning.  We go inside-out.  And this is where we get into trouble.  Inherently, it’s not customer focused.  We experiment for a while, if we aren’t achieve our goals, we rework and redesign our approach.  We keep adding, we keep layering on, we keep thinking that “more” adds value, instead of creating cost.  We guess, we make assumptions–they may be informed, but they are still guesses.  We may test and get customer input, but we always start the process with our strategies, our goals, our products, our programs, our go to market strategies.

Many organizations are trying to change this.  Many are becoming more customer focused, many are focusing first on how the customer buys, taking the outside-in approach.  That’s why Lean is so compelling.  If every Lean conversations starts with the questions, “Who is the customer and what do they value,” it forces customer focus.  

The Lean approach always has us start from the customer’s view, designing our engagement processes from the outside in.  Lean introduces another important concept–Radical Simplification.  See, we tend to think more is better.  But Lean forces us to be very precise.  We have to understand what customers value and deliver compelling and differentiated value.  But we can’t deliver more–it’s meaningless, the customer doesn’t want it, it adds complexity, confusion, and cost.

Imagine how simple things would be if all our product, market, strategy, and Go To Customer conversations started with two simple statements:  Who Is The Customer?  What Do They Value?  Answering those questions puts us so much further ahead. 

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  1. Brian MacIver permalink

    Very insightful, Dave. You have separated LEAN, from plain MEAN. Lean, as you have defined it is the focus on the needed, not more is better. Or, worse how Accountants ‘lean’ Sales by “taking tomatoes out of the ketchup!”

    We have leaned Sales Activity,
    by focus and what better lens than the Customer!

    You can lean Selling Skills by focus on the functional, removal of the dysfunctional and not laws, rules, methods or ‘systems’. Focus on the Customer!

    Its easy to drown in an ocean of data with today’s Big Data, so focus instead on Customer’ need for Information and insight. An ounce of Customer Insight is worth a ton of Data.

    Focus on the Customer, great Blog!

    • As always, Brian, you are too kind–and your comments add great substance to the post.

      I like the comment about the accountants–I’ll extend this to Lean Professionals. In a sense, I think they have done Lean a disservice by putting the accent on the wrong syllable. As reflected in the conversation I had with the colleagues on Lean, so much of what people “recall” in the discussion of Lean is “waste reduction.” That is a great outcome of lean, but it is not the focus–but too many have made it the focus.

      That focus naturally resonates with functions like manufacturing. They want to eliminate waste, which is why Lean has been so compelling to manufacturing. But if you go back to some of the original writing about Lean, it doesn’t start with waste reduction, is starts with “Who is the customer, and what to they value?” When I read those words, I think one has to be brain dead not to say—This is the question sales and marketing professionals face every day.

      Thanks as always for the comments—and for helping me avoid the hazards 😉

  2. Good article Dave and I agree with you. What some businesses do not understand is it is more complex to build a product or service first and then find customers. I believe simplicity is a key element in enjoying success today and as you pointed out in your article lean reduces costs.

    Simplicity gives clarity and focus and the one thing some do not understand is customers reward simplicity especially these days. We should have a chat one day about simplicity in sales and marketing.

    • Thanks for the great comment Susan—I know this is a theme you have been writing about a lot, we should talk.

      The process is actually an iterative, bi directional process. We may start with a great idea and build products. We then have to pose the questions, “What problems do these products solve, who has these problems.” At this point we transition our focus from the internal–the product we build to the customer, and we design our process from the customer back in.

      Instead, we talk about, “This is the product we build, how do we bring the product to market.” The difference in approaches sounds small, but in fact is profound. The small shift in perspective drives dramatic changes.

  3. Reading that Lean means “What does the customer value?” made me think of the TV series, Kitchen Nightmares, where Gordon Ramsay applies Lean practices to reignite and reinvent restaurants on the brink of collapse. Chef Ramsay enlightens and admonishes business owners who lost sight of what their customers value. The operating style of the restauranteurs could best be described as, “This is what we do,” “This is how we do business,” “This is how we go to market.”

    You smacked the tech industry upside-the-head, Ramsay-style, stating that, “We build our Go To Market strategies based on what is best for our organizations, with the customer the “victim” of how we have designed the engagement process. Eventually the customer gets involved but they are at the end, not at the beginning. We go inside-out. And this is where we get into trouble. Inherently, it’s not customer focused.”
    I believe that readers will view this blunt statement as a challenge, not an indictment.
    Although we know that successful businesses are customer-focused, some industries and organizations have difficulty applying customer-empowerment practices.

    As David says, in order for us to sell Lean we must ask ourselves, “Who Is The Customer? What Do They Value?” Embracing Lean principles may take us out of our comfort zone, but the results will make the effort and discomfort worthwhile. Just ask your customers.

    • Wow Vince! Thanks for the great comment! I’ll have to go get myself a Chef’s jacket and package myself as “Selling The Gordon Ramsey Way” 😉

      Currently, embracing lean principles is a challenge for sales. Partially because Lean professionals have done such a horrible job in helping Sales professionals understand and apply the principles of Lean (when it’s such an obvious target).

      But once you understand it, it’s simple common sense. The easiest way to design our approach to market is to start with these simple questions, reverse engineer the process. It is both the simplest–it also ends up being the cheapest and accelerates time to results (both for the customer and us).

      To do this requires a major shift in mentality. We have to put the customer at the center of our attention. Instead, we put ourselves at the center of attention. It’s hard to design the customer experience from that point of view.

  4. Dave,
    Great article. I agree with the concept. You don’t need an excuse but a reason to move the process forward toward a mutually beneficial goal. If you don’t have that goal defined once your already in the sales cycle and you’re not working toward it with your customer then you’re not ready to have any meeting.


    • Gary, it’s great to see you here, thanks for the comment. You point out a great issue. In the post I was focusing more on the overall design and implementation of the Go To Customer strategy–which should start with “Who is the customer,” by which we very carefully define the segment in a very rich way–here’s where personas and classical segmentation can be very powerful; subsequently we define what they value, how we deliver and so on so we define the customer engagement/buying/selling processes.

      But as you point out, the same principle needs to be applied in each sales opportunity. Thanks for the great comment.

  5. Dave: Thanks for clearing up confusions about the lean concept. What do you say about starting with answering the “why” (you are in business) questions before you ask “Who is the customer and what do they value”? I am practitioner of the trader principle. You trader value for value on a voluntarily exchange of goods and services, on a free market.

    • Martin: Yes, we have to be very clear about what problems we solve. Once we understand that, then we can define who is the customers and what they value.

  6. Mike Sheridan permalink

    As always, the simple concepts are the most profound as reflected in your blog.

    We are currently re-considering our go-to-market strategy with these three questions. In our case, it turns out that we are using value to guide customer segmentation. From that, we’ll determine what best marketing approach to apply (programatic, targeted, etc) sales approach (inside, field, blend) and supporting functions (services, product, etc).

    Nice to have the thinking reinforced and will keep in mind not to provide any more value than the customer desires.

    • Mike, it’s great to see you here! What you are doing is absolutely brilliant! The value/customer segment combination will enable you to optimize the customer engagement process, as well as enable you to most effectively and efficiently deploy your people and programs. The clarity and simplicity of this approach are always amazing, the results are compelling.

      You will be able to tune the value you present and deliver to those things most important and impactful to that customer segment, and not waste time or money on the stuff they don’t care about.

      Absolutely brilliant! Would love to hear more and the results you are producing. Thanks so much for sharing Mike.

  7. Dave: as ever, brilliantly put. The value of Lean: focus only on delivering what the customer values. The challenge for sales organizations, IMO: seeing, with speed and clarity, how well their practices are doing so. Absent such proof, it’s hard to have the honest, informed, dialogues about today’s reality that are needed to produce tomorrow’s better. With such proof fueling such dialogues? Welcome to lean. Where much improves as more gets learned as routines get done. -John

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