What Sales Can Learn From Lean Manufacturing — Part 4


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We’re almost through the 14 principles of lean manufacturing that underlie the Toyota Production System (TPS).  If you haven’t read the three preceding articles, you may find them helpful:  What Sales Can Learn From Lean Manufacturing, Part 2, and Part 3.

So far we’ve looked at the Philosophy of TPS, which provides the foundation for everything.  It’s interesting, while these 4 philosophies are the foundation for the Toyota Production System and lean manufacturing, they have nothing do do with manufacturing.  They are sound business practices.  Supporting the 4 philosophies are the 14 principles.   We’ve completed the first 9, today we’ll wrap up the remaining 5 principles.

Principle 10:  Develop exceptional people and teams who follow your company’s philosophy.  It’s become clear that TPS is a very people focused process.  So often we think of lean manufacturing as representing the ultimate in factory automation and technology utilization.  But the developers of TPS recognized that people are at the core of making any of this work.  Principle 9 focused on the leadership roles.  Principle 10 extends this to the entire team.  It recognizes the importance of several things in driving the highest levels of performance:  You have to get the right people, you have to develop them to achieve the highest levels of performance, and it’s critical they be aligned with the culture and values of the organization.

It’s easy to see how this principle applies directly to building the strongest teams of marketing and sales professionals.  But too often we overlook elements of these–as a result, we aren’t optimizing our ability to market and sell.   We can see, if we don’t execute this principle well, it has adverse impacts on many of the other principles, ultimately creating problems or challenges in achieving our goals.

Principle 11:  Respect your extended network of partners and suppliers by challenging them and helping them to improve.  This is very important for sales and marketing.  If you go back to principles 2 and 3 (create continuous flow, use pull systems), TPS basically linked very complex series of process steps dependent on each other.  The station downstream of your work station was your customer.  You produced your work based on the your customer’s need or pull.  Your goal was to provide a defect free product to them, so they in turn could add their value providing a defect free product to the next station, and so on to the ultimate customer.  Likewise, you are the customer to the station upstream from yours.  Their job was to respond to your demand (pull) and provide a defect free product to you.

You can trace these steps all the way back to the beginning of the manufacturing line.  But it didn’t stop there–where did the inputs come from?  They could have come from outside suppliers, they could have come from other parts of the company.  As a result, to optimize the production systems, there is a huge dependency on the extended network of partners and suppliers to be doing their jobs with the same level of quality, at the same cadence as the production line.  Without close planning and cooperation with this extended network, huge problems or inefficiencies arise.

In Japan, huge, very closely connected supplier networks have been established to help facilitate this tight collaboration.  You may have heard of the Keiretsu.

We face the same in sales and marketing.  In sales, we may have channel partners, downstream of us, working with customers.  If we aren’t working effectively with them, we can never serve the customer effectively.

Likewise, sales, customer services, and other functions within our organizations represent part of the “partner” network.  If we aren’t collaborating and working effectively together, we will fail to achieve our objectives.  There are some interesting words in this principle that are massively important if we really want to make this work.  The principle is based on mutual respect of each other.  It’s based on challenging each other to improve and helping each other to improve.  All to a common goal of serving the end customer.

As we reflect on many of the problems we have with performance, we can trace many of these back to the failure to apply this principles to our work with other organizations–within our company and outside our company.

Principle 12:  Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation.  I’m envious of this principle.  It was developed by people focused on building fantastic manufacturing capability.  But this principle is fundamental to sales and marketing!

Think about it.  At it’s core, it’s about customer centricity.  If we aren’t spending time with our customers, we can’t possibly understand what they are trying to achieve and how we help them solve their problems (remember from principle 11 they are part of our extended network).

It’s a core leadership principle as well, we can’t manage by sitting behind a desk looking at dashboards or in meetings.  We have to be with our people to understand what they are doing and where they need help.  If you reflect back to the discussion of principle 7, using visual controls, we have dashboards that tell us how things are doing and alerting us to problems.  But when a the line stops and the red light is flashing at a workstation (visual control), managers, experts and others on the line gathered at that workstation to understand what the problem was –where the problem was occurring.

Likewise, if we want to understand the challenges our people have in performing, while our dashboards may alert us to those challenges, the only way we solve this is with our people.

Principle 13:  Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options.  Implement decisions rapidly.  In the ready, fire, aim culture of sales and marketing, this principle may seem way out of line.  To those of you who have studied agile or are disciples of Eric Ries’ work, this may seem incompatible (it isn’t, but that’s another blog series 😉

But on reflection we can see the value of this–even at individual levels.  For example, if we rush to meet with the customer and we aren’t prepared, we know the problems that are created.  We know the value of planning, researching, and preparing, so we can maximize our impact in each meeting with the customer.

Likewise, when we look at our organizations, too often, we get into panic mode if we aren’t making our numbers.  Frenzies of unfocused activity happen.  We may create edicts around activity levels, “just make more calls, just send more emails, just get more stuff into the pipeline.”  But usually this has a terrible impact on results.

We already know this principle is so critical to everything we do in marketing and sales, yet we struggle to restrain ourselves, taking the time to understand, analyze, prepare before we execute.

Principle 14:  Become a learning organization through relentless reflection and continuous improvement.  In building high performing manufacturing systems, the creators of TPS recognized things were always changing and to be able to respond to those changes, the entire organization needed to continually learn and improve.

In marketing and sales it’s even more visible and more urgent to adopt this principle.  Our customers are constantly changing, they buy differently today than they did a few years ago.  Our competition is changing–both traditional competition, and those new competitors who are disrupting our customers and businesses.

If we aren’t learning and improving, we will be left behind.


Conclusion:  We’ve completed the 4 philosophies, and the 14 principles of the Toyota Production System.  As you can see, they are not really about manufacturing, but about developing high performance organizations.  The applications of most of these in sales and marketing are immediately obvious.

What leaps out at me is the disciplined process focused orientation—we know how important that is in sales and marketing.  The visible metrics and problem solving approach.  The dependency on upstream and downstream partners, collaborating to optimize the results we produce.  The focus on learning and improvement.

But more than anything else, it’s the focus on people.  The creators of TPS recognized all of this only works with knowledgeable, empowered people at all levels-all aligned around the company goals and culture.  Leaders are teachers, coaches, developers, and collaborative problem solvers.

In my next and final post on the series, I’ll address what I think are some of the “misunderstandings” of applying lean manufacturing to sales and marketing.  Mostly, it’s people who have focused on only one aspect or element of manufacturing, for example “build to order,” or “specialization.”

As the creators of TPS recognized, it’s the disciplined execution of all the philosophies and principles that drove manufacturing excellence.  Likewise with sales and marketing, it’s the disciplined execution of the same philosophies and principles that enable us to perform at the highest levels.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Brock
Dave has spent his career developing high performance organizations. He worked in sales, marketing, and executive management capacities with IBM, Tektronix and Keithley Instruments. His consulting clients include companies in the semiconductor, aerospace, electronics, consumer products, computer, telecommunications, retailing, internet, software, professional and financial services industries.


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