One Size Does Not Fit All
In a recent straw poll with which I was involved, this
question was posed: "Which function in your organization
is least likely to buy in to a Six Sigma initiative?"
The returns were pretty close to unanimous, and their general
tone was best captured by one sardonically eloquent response:
"Those bozos in sales."
So the questions arise: Why in the name of all that is
critical to quality do salespeople resist? Why in the name
of marauding Black Belts everywhere is there such nonstandard
deviation when it comes to gaining their buy-in? What in
the name of Vilfredo Pareto has gotten into them?
It's simple. The language of Six Sigma, shot through with
references to defects, variability and root causes of problems,
is inimical to a successful sales mentality. What motivates
salespeople is, in a word, winning. In their world view,
the bumps along the road aren't the variables in their job;
they're the essence of it.
At an intellectual level, a salesperson might say: "I
can see where having a defect-free quote process would be
good. And I suppose that driving out variability from communications
with field service reps makes sense. But those sure aren't
'A items' to me." Why not? Because what moves salespeople
to action is the idea of winning the order, and then winning
the next one, and then the next one. Put another way, your
sales force will worry about defect reduction when there's
no more winning left to be done.
Another problem: Salespeople tend not to be imbued with
the need to "think process"--the heart of Six
Sigma. They do care about the efficiency, productivity and,
ultimately, the success of the business. It's just that
they're responsive to different kinds of stimuli than their
colleagues in, say, manufacturing.
"But," goes the argument, "everyone has
to participate in Six Sigma. Too bad if salespeople don't
want to think about defects or process." Seems sensible--after
all, it's only saying that everybody should be treated equally.
Too bad it's exactly wrong. You might even say that it's
highly (and ironically) defective. It's an example of poor
sales practice (which is also ironic: If your goal is to
get real buy-in to Six Sigma, then you've got some selling
A basic sales tenet is that one size does not fit all.
The sales task has a lot less to do with a Lomanesque smile
and a shine than it does with identifying the areas of convergence
between what you have to offer and what a particular customer
wants and/or needs. Why do you suppose that the quality
disciplines, the source of Six Sigma's intellectual DNA,
have taken root so much more deeply in the manufacturing
arena than in sales? Because the language and modes of thought
that accompany quality--efficiency and waste and statistical
analyses and process--were already there (maybe latently,
but nonetheless there) in those people who turned to careers
in manufacturing. There was convergence between the job
and what naturally moves people to action.
Ask whoever is responsible for quality/Six Sigma in your
organization: "What's the biggest challenge you face--the
hard stuff or the soft stuff? Understanding and applying
the techniques, or getting people to engage with a satisfactory
degree of passion and fervor?" I guarantee they'll
say it's the soft stuff, the buy-in part.
So you have quality people who are good at the application
of Six Sigma but less good at getting people to buy in to
what they have to offer. And you have salespeople who are
good at getting people to buy in to what they have to offer
but less good at Six Sigma. As the saying goes, you can't
have it both ways. If you really want to treat everybody
equally, you have to accept the fact that either salespeople
aren't such bozos after all, or your quality people aren't
totally bereft of bozodom themselves.
None of this suggests that the sales department should
get a pass when it comes to Six Sigma. The principles are
sound, the tools work and the techniques should be employed.
But none of that will happen without buy-in, and that calls
for an approach tailored to the specific needs that drive
It's got to be about helping them win, not helping you
check off another item on your Six Sigma implementation
to-do list; about helping them be more effective at sorting
the real prospects from the tire-kickers; about helping
them be better at listening to (and truly hearing) their
customers; about helping them better understand just exactly
where their offerings and their customers' wants/needs converge;
about helping them be better at framing the myriad assumptions
that will, like it or not, inform the entire selling process;
about, ultimately, helping them be more successful at getting
customers to give them their money.
In short, Six Sigma has to be about winning. And if it
is, it will help you win their hearts and minds--and compliance.
Come to think of it, that basic sales tenet might be more
applicable here than just about anyplace else: Before subjecting
your sales people to a thorough Six Sigmoidoscopy, remember
that one size most definitely does not fit all.
John Guaspari is founding principal of Deep Customer Connections
Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consulting firm.
His newest book is Switched-On Quality: How to Tap Into
the Energy Needed for Fuller and Deeper Buy-In (Paton Press,
2002). E-mail him at john. firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is adapted from an article originally
appearing in the September/ October edition of Across the
Board, the magazine of The Conference Board.