When I was first offered the chance to become a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt I was a Marketing Manager at a Fortune 500 chemical company. I initially resisted the invitation vigorously as I couldn’t see how this method was relevant to me in marketing when it was developed for the world of manufacturing and product design.

As soon as I started the training I realised I was wrong. Business Improvement, including Lean Six Sigma, may have been developed in manufacturing but suggesting that is all it is good for ignores its power and potential.

However, over the years I’ve encountered many other sales and marketing professionals who also doubt the applicability of this continuous improvement approach to their work. I think it’s about time to dispel some myths by looking again at the basics of Lean Six Sigma.

Many thousands of gurus have written many millions – if not billions – of words about business transformation, but most agree on a few fundamentals:

1. Process Improvement applications improve ALL processes

Sales and Marketing activities follow processes – every time you do something more than once, you follow a process – and almost all of them have the potential for improved efficiency and/or effectiveness. Who wouldn’t want to get a better quality and effectiveness of marketing output and a higher volume of sales to enquiries? Improvements in these areas have the potential to truly transform the business.

2. Lean Six Sigma is a fantastic structure to deliver improvements

Often in businesses, efforts have been made to tackle problems, but it’s the lack of structure that has caused them to fail. Lean Six Sigma provides a robust structure which starts by defining the problem accurately. It then guides people through measuring current performance, finding the critical few obstacles to process improvement and then addressing the obstacles. Finally, it ensures people accurately measure the improvement and lock in the changes so the performance doesn’t degrade.

There’s really nothing in that structure that shouldn’t or couldn’t be applied to a sales and marketing problem. Having a structure, regardless of what it is called, helps you find the root cause of a problem and embed a permanent solution. Sounds good to me!

3. Lean Six Sigma seeks to reduce waste

Examples of waste in Sales and Marketing processes are opportunities which don’t convert into sales, plans which fail through poor definition and execution, work invested in new projects or plans which are then abandoned.

As marketing is a creative process, and sales deals with leads that vary from red hot to polar, there is naturally a lot of time wasted on things which do not end up being beneficial. The trick of Lean Six Sigma is in giving sales and marketing teams the skills to identify these ‘future failures’ before they invest too much time!

4. Lean Six Sigma also aims to reduce variation

Process variation results in unpredictable outcomes; neither the customers of the sales process, nor the businesses that the process serves, appreciate that. As a marketing or sales manager, how much easier would it be to get the same outcome every time you followed a particular process? Business Improvement techniques can help with that.

5. More effective businesses use data to drive decision making

One of the key criticisms levelled at marketing is the lack of metrics commonly used to justify decisions. Whereas sales departments usually have more data, but it is usually used to illustrate performance rather than aide decision making.

Relying on data, as opposed to gut feeling, opinion or received wisdom, leads to more effective decisions as people are going into their plans with their eyes open and are better placed to make informed decisions.

data barrier

The most common barrier that I come across to the adoption of Business Improvement in these functions seems to be based on the use of data. Either the data is considered too flaky, or the methods of data analysis promoted by the methodologies seem too remote from their needs.

Neither has to be an obstacle.

Lean Six Sigma begins by questioning the reliability of the data, and this is an essential step. Understanding how much it can be trusted allows managers to avoid reaching bad decisions based on flawed or incomplete data. This initial analysis may even help the team decide that doing something to improve the data is justified.

Another roadblock for many sales and marketing managers is the reputation Lean Six Sigma has for heavy statistics. Now, there are cases where some complex statistics are necessary but I found that I could tackle more than 95% of problems using simple graphical tools supplemented by those I knew from outside the core Lean Six Sigma lexicon, such as waterfall charts and SWOT analysis. The skill was to find the right tool for each problem and not assume that just because the problem is complex that the solution has to be too.

Reinforcing prejudice

One common issue I’ve found is how the transformation is rolled out across the business. Most companies start an implementation applying Lean Six Sigma in their core operational functions, before rolling it out to customer services and back office, which leave sales and marketing among the last departments to begin business transformation.

This sensible approach can unfortunately create barriers when it comes time to extend Lean Six Sigma into sales and marketing: The perception that it’s all about operations will have been created, and the success stories which can usually build momentum will instead serve to reinforce that prejudice. Translating Lean Six Sigma out of operations requires language, case studies and examples that are in line with the problems experienced by people in sales and marketing roles. You wouldn’t buy a multipurpose tool for drilling if the only examples of it in use were of it being used for sanding. It’s the same with any Business Improvement approach; people need to see how it is applicable to them personally in a tangible way, not in terms of vague statements of efficiency.

At 100% Effective we have first-hand experience of implementing Business Improvement in all industry sectors, including sales and marketing. We know the unique challenges and problems associated with processes in this sector and can help you find your own way to overcome them.