Talking About Lean in Sales

In our previous article ( The Challenge of Sales Forecasting in a Lean Environment) the sales manager, Mateo, was struggling with volatile sales forecasts. Obviously, the forecasts were important to the organization.

He recognized forecasting was not the primary goal for salespeople. They wanted to help customers and make their numbers. 

In production, the forecast reflects the flow of products along a value stream. Knowledge of complex capabilities, measurements, and timelines makes value streams visible and tangible.

In sales, the forecast should reflect the flow of prospects with problems the company can solve. Matteo asked himself, “What is getting in the way of finding and winning enough of the right prospects?”

Instead of measurements and timelines, his answer relied on opinions and personalities. Sales was a black box – a system whose internal workings were not scientifically understood.

He thought proficiency reaching decision makers was the key. Or perhaps, getting his people to face bad news earlier. Frank, the team’s most experienced salesperson, advocated building relationships up and down the hierarchy. Others thought the company needed more competitive pricing. The CFO was convinced salespeople were not getting firm commitments from prospects. Of course, the president was just expecting the sales department to “get it fixed.”

How could everyone be seeing such different things?  What if all of them were right?  Or at least, right from a particular perspective.

Perhaps you’ve heard the Parable of the Blind Men and an Elephant. Each person is starting from what they perceive and offering their opinion of the whole based on the facts they know. None of them can see the limitations of what they know.  Individually, it would take a lot for them to recognize they’re dealing with an elephant. Working together, they can do it.

Mateo can get his folks talking about what they are observing. Observations are the foundation; not what individuals think is the solution. Talking together they will see different perspectives. They can describe the variations they observe about prospects. They can start to agree which ones are important and why.

These are the beginnings of what is called operational definition. Definitions improve everyone’s understanding of the presence or absence of problems your firm can solve for the customer. More importantly, they get closer to having standards that make measurements visible and tangible.

We’ll continue exploring this subject in future posts and in an upcoming interview.



Michael Webb has deep experience in field sales, sales management, and sales training. He helps sales leaders effectively engage sellers and field managers to identify problems and make sustainable improvements. He has joined the data and process orientations of Lean and Six Sigma to the realities of sales activities. He has worked with large and small B2B companies in manufacturing and distribution across the United States and internationally. He is the author of two books and numerous articles. Michael’s second book, Sales Process Excellence, earned the prestigious Shingo Research Award. It guides sales leaders to bring excellence to their Finding, Winning and Keeping customer-focused efforts. “The first session with Michael was an eye opener. We did identify things we were pretty sure we already knew (and some we didn't) but never had the structure to implement what we found.” Ken Wood, Business Development Manager

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