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Steven Spear

Steve Spear: Lean is about making clear and explicit the best known approaches to achieving success

By Steven Spear, - Last updated: Sunday, July 11, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

Sales and marketing may seem a far cry from the production shop floors on which ‘lean’ was first observed.  Nevertheless, that type of work lends itself to exactly the same disciplines of rigorous discovery that allowed Toyota to come from beyond, over take its rivals, and run away from the field.

There is a mistaken notion that the essence of ‘lean,’ as an approximation of the Toyota Production System, is the stabilization of processes, heretofore chaotic, as an endpoint in and of itself.

Not so when practiced by the masters.  ‘Stabilization,’ or more generally ‘specification’ is both a means of making clear and explicit the best known approaches to achieving success and also creates the opportunity to see problems–when those best known approaches are proving themselves inadequate–as a trigger for rapid, relentless, rigorous problem solving and knowledge building.

It is with the latter, higher fidelity approach of lean, that we improved on the cold calling process at a financial software company.

Amongst the sales agents, there were enormous disparities in performance.  Why?  The conventional wisdom was that certain agents were ‘naturals’ (and, by implication others were not) and that expertise was inextricably tied to experience.  The more of the latter, the more of the former.

We tested and refuted both those propositions.  We started by picking an outstanding agent and then several people simultaneously watched him make calls, recording what he said and did, when, and how, working to create a script of what he had done.

They then showed the script to him, making modifications based on his input. After several cycles, another agent tried to follow the script.  At each struggle point, we modified and clarified the script further.  By the end of the day, a novice was trained up in the procedure, and low and behold, he was more effective in less time than ever before.

What can we take from this?  In general, we know there are a select few organizations that generate far more value in less time and less effort than their peers can manage.  In general, those select organizations demonstrate tremendous rigor in four disciplines that accelerate improvement and innovation: how they design work, how they solve problems, how the incorporate local learnings systemically, and how leaders engage people in developing and applying those other skills.

These same disciplines, applied to sales, had tremendous impact.

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