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Borrowing from the factory side: ‘Lean' works in marketing, too

It is interesting to note that in great times we tend to roll with everything. When things are positive, sales, profits and morale are all high. We sit in our offices and usually do not think twice about our processes. We’re so consumed with meeting demand — and delighted we’re making money — we often overlook everyday occurrences that could make all our jobs easier and more profitable. That’s because, at the time, those concerns are trumped by increasing sales.


Of course, it is quite the opposite in a sluggish market. We analyze every expense, scrap of paper, resource (human and material) to do our best to shave costs off the bottom line so we can come out as close to the positive as possible at the end of the cycle. It’s a vicious cycle, no doubt.

So when I was asked by one of my clients to participate in a training session on Lean, it came as no surprise to me at the time. (I’ll come back to this point later.) I’m sure most of you know the concept, but for those that are not familiar with Lean Production, or Lean Manufacturing, it was a process instituted by the CEO of Toyota in the 1970s. The basics of the program allow team members to analyze their daily duties in regards to their role in the manufacturing process. They openly identify areas of waste, including time or materials lost, and create a more streamlined system of operating procedures in an effort to eliminate the identified waste.

It’s also a bottom-up philosophy where employees help determine what management can do to make their job more effective. From that training, each employee is expected to identify action items that will contribute to a more streamlined work flow. This process has two goals: boost company morale and increase profitability down the line. It was an extremely successful program for Toyota, and later adopted by U.S. manufacturers.

So it came as no surprise to me that one of my clients was holding a Lean session. It made perfect sense that this company would drill down to identify and eliminate any waste, especially in today’s market. But in fact, this company is already doing this on multiple levels.

The true surprise was this: This was a Lean session on marketing initiatives; specifically, the entire marketing brochure creation process for the company and how we marketers could analyze our previous waste and work toward eliminating it.

It makes sense when you think about it.

Why wouldn’t a team of professionals do something like this more often? But interestingly enough, to the best of the marketing manager’s knowledge, this was the first time the Lean process had been applied to anything related to marketing.

Normally, the meetings and training sessions are reserved strictly for internal employees. Our situation was a little more unusual, however, so a decision was made to involve key members of the brochure creation process, which meant inviting outside vendors and partners, including myself. The photographer for the brochures was present, along with key representatives of the company.

There we were, nine of us in a setting that reminded me of a college classroom. A windowless room with a podium from which the meeting facilitator spoke, a projector screen over the whiteboard with a PowerPoint presentation illuminated on it, numerous two-seater rectangular tables with notebooks and pens spread out across the tops, flow charts and graphs lining the walls, two boxes of doughnuts, and creative minds filling the chairs with their personal understanding of the brochure creation process and its associated headaches.

We began with a tutorial on Lean basics, so we could have a better understanding of the program and its benefits. Once we had a handle on this, it was time for the nuts-and-bolts of the meeting. A flow chart of every process that went into creating last year’s corporate brochures was presented. Analyzing each step in the process during an open brainstorming session was the true eye-opener. Our ultimate goal was to shave off six weeks of wasted time to move up the deliverable date of the marketing materials. We all knew that goal wasn’t unreasonable, but it was aggressive.

It was aggressive because of the many elements and variables that go into creating a marketing collateral piece such as a corporate product brochure. Will the weather cooperate for photography sessions? Will the products be ready in time for these photo sessions? Will the photographer and agency be able to work together to get the images color-corrected and prepared in Photoshop in a timely manner? Will corporate representatives be available for approving the copy and layout designs? Will the printer be given enough time to actually create the brochures without fear of equipment failure or bad paper stock issues?

I must say the open forum to the meeting was almost the best part of the day. It allowed us to share our concerns from our previous experiences, vent our frustrations about current elements that bogged down the process, establish and agree on concrete ideas and deadlines that would help us obtain our new shared goal and to realize the many variables that are out of our control.

I say that was “almost the best part of the day” because the best part was realizing we were all on the same page. We had collectively established aggressive, yet obtainable, goals that would eliminate the waste created by the previous year’s processes. In turn, that would help us increase profitability not only from a “time is money” standpoint, but also deliver those brochures six weeks earlier to the sales network so they could do their jobs more effectively. Six weeks may not seem like much, but when you take into consideration the amount of consumer shows missed and potential customers lost during that six-week period, those six weeks feel more like a lifetime. It would mean the difference in millions of dollars in sales gains for the company.

As I said in the beginning, when times are slow none of us can afford to miss even one potential customer. The Lean process was an eye-opening experience for us,

I applaud the company for having the courage to apply it to the marketing initiatives, and recommend it to anyone in the industry.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue.



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