Why we (still) love LEAN thinking in B2B marketing
You might ask why B2B marketing in this century would stand on an idea for manufacturing efficiency drawn from Toyota by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones and promoted in the latter 1990s. Particularly when, these days, the buzz of research and discussion has moved towards agile frameworks; and we work largely in tech, where Agile is (still) King.
We call ourselves “marketing ninja” and if you watch a real ninja warrior, you’d see why we’d strive to be like them. Agility is a given. Speed, flexibility, economy of movement, the deliberate strike with power and precision – these are ninja characteristics we try to engender in our marketing moves. From the same great nation (Japan) that delivered ninja warriors some centuries ago came the Toyota Production System, an integrated socio-technical system for factory optimisation, which Womack and Jones sold to the world as ‘lean thinking’. The adoption of lean post-1996 became a license for downsizing after the bloated 80s, after robotics and electronics arrived. Humans struggled with the first major threat to employment since the advent of machines. “Lean” started sounding like “mean”.
However, there is nothing too hard-ass nor anachronistic about admitting that lean thinking remains one religion by which we model our own internal work teams, production processes, project management, and continuous improvement. We’re not shy about it – we’re evangelists, if rather unfashionably. Putting aside grey images of mass-factory out-of-workers and executives leaping from buildings to escape crushing KPIs, we can toss out the bathwater but keep the baby to examine how lean thinking is still working for us and our clients, where you might least expect it – in B2B marketing.
Lean thinking v. lean manufacturing v. marketing mindset
Lean has evolved into two different schools of thought. The one we’re not embracing is ‘lean manufacturing’, a corporate distortion which is brutally focused on cost-cutting without the positive benefits that ‘lean thinking’, in its higher form, will bring.
At the heart of lean thinking is the customer, and central to the marketing mindset is the customer. Thus, there is no fundamental conflict-of-interest in adopting ‘lean-thinking marketing’ for B2B or B2C.
The five foundational concepts in lean thinking are value, value streams, flow, pull, and perfection. Lean thinking demands changed thinking, and managers who lead by demonstrable example. Lean thinking is ideally engendered throughout teams by individuals to produce a ‘lean organisation’. Ginormous B2B Marketing is near-as-heck to a lean organisation and our clients (= our customers, in lean thinking), and their customers (= ditto, in the marketing mindset), are who we serve. How we serve with such great passion, creativity, measurable effectiveness, and appreciable cost-efficiency is largely the result of lean thinking.
Lean thinking and conditions conducive to “Aha!” moments
Lean thinking takes seriously those “Aha!” moments – when a ‘good’ idea comes from anyone, in any work team, often unexpectedly. How do we induce inspiration without whips or pushbuttons? We encourage our people to state-change at work and in life generally, as it enriches references and stimulates lateral thinking. My own personal workspace (the “Willoplex”) has all the usual office stuff plus some compact gym equipment, and a guitar or two for picking up any time. There’s not just a saddle chair, and a yoga ball, but a bench sofa for working cross-legged or engaging in meditative contemplation, and a great sound system with LED lighting to fire-up or fine-tune the mood. One of our team members keeps a couple of geckos in their workspace; another spends part of each year working upside-down hours from their second home in the USA. Someone swims at lunchtime; still more people cook; others workout or walk. Given our type of business, we foster out-of-hours engagement with the visual, literary, and digital arts; and all sensory experiences including festivals, concerts, exhibitions, and adventures. One of our people took holidays in Cuba, another in Mongolia. One goes to Splendour, another to Burning Man. Some of us sing, act, or play instruments or sport (if golf counts, haha). Nobody should be unfit for whatever challenges tomorrow may bring – nobody asleep at the wheel or freewheeling while others cover their focus and carry their weight. We admire non-stop study and self-motivated personal and professional development. People bring their whole selves to the workspace. Individually and collectively, we learn and share something new every day.
Managers embedded within teams for Kaizen and Kanban
With respect for the lean role of ‘sensei’ in the pursuit of Kaizen perfection, our managers and management ‘superpowers’ are working embedded within teams in real-time shared environments to get jobs done. These scrum-like sessions start with a stated objective – interpreted and explained by a ‘superpower’ through collaboration with the client – and given the visualised example of the outcome we’re about to achieve. Everyone in the project/task team, from strategic to creative to technical and administration, gets the full picture and is on-the-page. Everyone is guided by Kaizen improvement, what we nickname “perfectionising”, but wasting neither time nor materials getting there. It gets sweaty and the sawdust and steel shards are flying, everyone grinding, but nothing gets polished until it’s working. We seize viable “Aha!” revelations the moment they happen. We also go for continual micro-improvements, like the lean 1% increments, by checking against affirmations. “Every day we keep getting better.” We are lean-spirited.
A recent example of “Aha!” (and SMED) in our workspace was when one of our account managers conveyed to the project/task team, in a live work-session, that the client had briefed a third-party developer to write costly custom-code for a self-assessment/lead-capturing tool. We were to embed this tool on the client website when done. But, between this work-session and the next, one of our own frontend developers quietly created their own version of the desired tool and offered it for testing. It worked perfectly as per the client’s brief, which was still floating with the third-party developer. Our developer’s autonomously-speculative R&D hours were quickly converted from #unbillable to #billable, and our (surprised) client gained a functional tool for their website at a fraction of the time and expense it could have taken elsewhere.
Kanban practices and ‘autonomation’ keep us improving our practices and deployment of technology to continually become more high-performance, efficient, and value-adding for our clients. We believe that our success and good fortune is proportionate to our delivery of results and value. If you need a B2B marketing agency in Sydney or Melbourne, what’s not to love about that?
How lean-thinking traditions are native behaviours in our work
In lean thinking, teachers shouldn’t tell but rather show by demonstration, and learners take responsibility for learning. “Yes, I’ve got it, let me test it,” or: “Please run that by me again?” Teaching and learning happens on-the-fly, between those who know and those who don’t, irrespective of whether it’s top-down, bottom-up, or new-school flat. “How can I do this?” might meet with: “I don’t know but Jake does – can you show us quickly now, Jake?” We think people should only have to say things once. We rarely make appointments with each other, other than scheduled team or workgroup sessions. If it’s not done in real-time, with everyone together, it’s WYGAM (when-you-get-a-minute), WWGAM (when-we-get-a-minute), WTGAM (when-they-get-a-minute), or WIGAM (when-I-get-a-minute).
Kaizen for excellence
We work cross-functionally and with real-time interaction, we don’t need committees or scheduled meetings to achieve continuous improvement. True to lean-thinking tradition, we embrace continual improvement as a normal part of the job, being who we are, doing what we do. With the measurability of digital marketing, and the sound of our client’s metaphoric cash-registers ringing, our progress is ultimately informed. The idea of excellence, of ‘nailing it’ (in a good way), is deeply embedded in our thinking – it’s what new members of our project teams quickly learn from colleagues. We say things out loud like: “Excellence is the minimum standard.” Our work can get messy while we’re doing it but for the end result, ‘adequate’ is not enough for us. It needs to shine.
Kanban for sequence and flow
Kanban is the foundation of lean thinking, as originated at Toyota. It is assumed that any process has a different output. For example, given any one client, we might be writing a keynote speech, designing and promoting a new web page to support the SEO strategy, distributing a newsletter campaign to subscribers and monitoring metrics, designing an exhibition stand, developing sales collateral, doing outbound lead generation by cold-calling and emailing. The question is, at any moment – can we be sure we are doing exactly what is most needed RIGHT NOW, and not getting ahead with something that’s not important right now, nor lagging on something that’s critical? In project management, getting this workflow levelled-out properly will avoid scary budget over-runs and end-of-project panic. Toyota didn’t want warehouses overflowing with one type of part while they were running out of another. Worklife, when responding to the changing needs of different clients, can be chaotic and demanding. To ensure continuity and priority of production, we work to turn chaos into a manageable rhythm. Kanban is a simple technique using cards or post-it notes to sort tasks and organise priorities in a visualised way. Trello boards are great as virtualised, shared, Kanban-style desks. Our Trello boards are full of activity in the midst of a live project, hibernating in between, ready to rejig for the next round. Kanban is about challenging assumptions. We are continually reassessing our assumptions about market perceptions, behaviours, demand, expectations, and also our own approaches, capacities, and potentials, at any given time.
Autonomation for efficiency
Not a misspelling, ‘autonomation’ is distinct from automation. We use a lot of software systems but it takes human judgment to make sure we’re using them right. At this stage at least, our systems will go wrong or become redundant if someone isn’t maintaining them all the time. We use software to help teach us what we need to do next. Sometimes this machine-teaching is automatic, like when we’re reminded to update WordPress core, theme, etc. Other times, we make automatic things happen through manual settings. Tasks set for individuals in CRMs and project management tools will do the remembering for us. We’re always looking at new SaaS products and integrations – anything that allows us to work smarter. The lean idea is for machines to do the work as much as possible, and for humans to focus on things only humans can do.
Andon for integrity
My favourite fable is The Emperor’s New Clothes and I often refer to the analogy in a business context. The practice of andon entitles anyone in our organisation to call out immediately when something feels wrong or doesn’t look right. “Tell the truth,” we say. The eyes of the team are all over the anomaly in no time – nobody is left alone with a problem in our crew, and ‘superpowers’ are in the room if really needed. With andon, everyone uses their problem-solving capabilities, and everyone learns in the process.
SMED for flexibility
SMED is an acronym standing for Single Minute Exchange of Die, which at Toyota meant changing tools under 10 minutes. Today, SMED is a lean thinking practice to focus on flexibility. Flexibility doesn’t mean changing everything all the time, but the ability to switch quickly from one activity to the next. That’s how we roll. A team will come together and work furiously on a task or project section in real-time. At the end of the session, groups will reform according to tasks and required skillsets, then work furiously on the next thing until done or the milestone or time-limit is reached. We change tools rapidly as needed, and if we need another kind of tool, we’ll quickly find one (or make one) to get the job done. SMED teaches us to flow activities with the right elements and sequences to respond more immediately to customer/client/market demand.
Standardised Work for smoothness
Lean thinking is about seeking the smoothest flow in any work. We want to see problems one by one and resolve them one by one, without becoming overwrought or overwhelmed. When we improve the flow of work, we facilitate the autonomy of the person, in lean thinking. When we work on a very large or complex project, it’s accomplished one task or milestone at a time. Standardized Work practices give us visualisations, benchmarks, processes, quality points – the ability to distinguish between what is ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’, ‘good enough’ or ‘not good enough’, whether it’s ‘s*** hot’ or ‘s***’. With our unique B2B sales generation system (the Pipeline Machine), we have process-engineered the steps and quality points of pre-sales to a very elegant degree.
Visualisation for clarity
Visualisation is important in our business, so that we can ‘see together, know together, learn together’. Our work typically begins with visual concepts as much as copywritten messages. With visual control, we can see the gap between what was planned and what happened, or how we’re moving towards achieving what was planned. The process of visualisation can give any one of us an “Aha!” moment, and when shared, it might modify the original plan or plan-of-attack. Some people can visualise clearly in imagination, others have difficulty even when there is an image before them. We use visual references, “Something like this or… like that.” We model. We will sometimes sketch where words cannot get the intended picture across. A good picture is easily worth two thousand words. We’ve taken the visualisation idea beyond original lean methodologies through the advent of cloud. Now we can work in real-time virtualised environments, and give clients a direct seat inside the rocket surgery when rockets are being built and launched. Much of the old-school account service role in advertising was running back-and-forth with show-and-tell feedback loops. Like a lot of things that used to cost B2B marketing clients lots of money without direct value, wasteful loops and bottlenecks are in the past.