Lean applies to every function within a business. You cannot succeed on your lean journey without engaging the sales organization at some point.

Lean applies to every function within a business. Your customers don’t care if success or failure comes from manufacturing, suppliers or sales. You cannot succeed on your lean journey without engaging the sales organization at some point.

Most lean thinkers begin this conversation in the wrong way. In so many words, the message is, “Your sales practices are hurting our operations.” That may be true, but it’s not an effective first step. We forget that operations is not the customer of the sales organization. If anything, it is the other way around. We need a different approach to engage the sales organization.

Step one should be selling the idea of lean-but with actions instead of words. Don’t start where your journey ended, start where it began. You must demonstrate to the sales team that lean is worth the effort. Take waste out of processes that get in their way, whether that be halving the time spent on expense reporting, or simplifying the quoting process. Anything that frees up their time will be immediately recognized. Good sales professionals, particularly those working on commission, know precisely what an hour of their time is worth.

Once you have their attention by demonstrating the value of lean, you are ready to engage them in their work. As step two, I recommend focusing on lean changes that help them with what they’re paid to do-develop sales. If you can integrate lean principles and practices into their selling process, then you will have a strong foundation on which to build.

How does lean apply to sales? Direct observation is a powerful practice of lean thinkers. It requires careful and structured understanding of the current state of a process or a problem. If you develop this practice and bring it to your customers’ site or situation, you can observe with a fresh set of eyes, a lean set of eyes. Your goal is to understand your customer’s problems better than he does. Then you will be in a strong position to help him solve it in a unique way.

This might involve observing your customers’ processes and environment, or how they currently use your product or service. By observing the process at a deep level, the sales professional will be able to provide more value.

Another example is experimentation and reflection. By teaching the fundamentals of Plan-Do-Check-Act, the sales team can test out new ideas, messages and techniques with rigor. They can establish a common means by which to experiment, and ultimately to share best practices.

The third step is to work on processes that cross boundaries. Many processes that go into product development, manufacturing or finance begin in sales at some point. These process are often broken, or at least inefficient. Lean can connect them, but it will require collaboration.

An example is the lean principle of establishing agreement on both what needs to be done and how to accomplish it. When communicating and negotiating with a customer, most sales professionals focus on getting agreement on the what-product, service, price and timing. The how is left to the existing process. But, many complaints, gaps and disagreements come from lack of agreement on the how-methods, communication and decision-making. Learning to establish the critical hows early can lead to better long-term customer satisfaction.

Although many operations-oriented lean thinkers would like to begin here, it will often be a losing battle. The reason is that your sales team isn’t on board with lean, nor will they have the skill or mindset to collaborate on it. Yes, you might want to get to this now, but you must approach the sales organization with openness so they can pursue their own learning journey. They can’t begin where you left off. They must travel the path themselves.

Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, MI, and the co-author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road. He is a coach and consultant to executives and practitioners in industries ranging from hospitals to high technology. You can follow his blog at www.jamieflinchbaugh.com. To contact Jamie directly, go to the web site www.leanlearningcenter.com.