Shorten the order cycle time to improve cash flow.

Lean is all about streamlining processes to make them simpler, more transparent and easily understood. Typically we think of Lean as being applied to manufacturing. How can we make more stuff, in less time, using fewer resources (people, space, materials, energy, etc.)?

Lean can be used in most any environment. My objective in using Lean with all my clients is to shorten the order-to-cash cycle time, the time starting when a customer calls you on the phone to place an order and ending when you receive and cash the check. The shorter that cycle is, the better your cash flow and the happier your customer. What’s not to like?

Too many companies (manufacturing, distribution and service) start the Lean process somewhere after the sales part is all done. They streamline the warehouse, delivery, invoicing, etc., but totally skip the quote and sales processes - which as we all know can take a long time. If the quote process takes too long, you may lose the customer altogether. Even if you don’t lose him, a complicated quote and sales process will forever lengthen the time before you can ship the material and ultimately cash the check.

Look at the sales process like you would any other. Follow a quote and then a sale through the entire process and time each step along the way. How much time is devoted to doing work on the quote or sale and how much time is due to the quote or order waiting. I can guarantee that there’s a lot of waiting embedded in the quote and sale processes (not minutes, but hours and even days). A customer requests an odd valve and your guys call around to the various suppliers - and then they wait for responses. The outside guy isn’t sure about a technical question so he tells the customer he will get back to him. He calls the inside guy, but the inside guy is on the phone with another customer so the outside guys waits. Everyone looks busy doing work, but this is busy work - calling people back two to three times, waiting for returned calls. And none of it is getting the order any closer to going out the door.

Quoting is the hardest to get Lean because you can’t control how fast a supplier gets back to you. You can, however, control which suppliers you use. Suppliers that make you wait and wait for quotes should be getting less and less of your business. It’s as simple as that.

Trying to process big orders in one big batch is another way that “waiting” gets embedded into the system. At first blush it seems like giving partial quotes and shipping partial orders is stupid and a nuisance - but in fact, partial quoting/shipping is one way to prevent more useless waiting (at least when you ship part of an order, you get to cash a part of the check).

Sometimes saying NO is the most powerful way to stop the waiting.

“No, we can’t quote that for you. We don’t have it in stock, we can’t get it to you in a reasonable time frame - we don’t want to wait and we don’t want you to wait.”

I can already hear the wails: I can’t do that!!! I will lose the sale! Yep, you are exactly right. You will. And I am here to tell you that that’s a good thing. Now you can devote your time on quotes youcan make and to customers you can service in a timely fashion. Waiting isn’t only a waste, it creates other wastes. You have to keep remembering to follow up with this or that vendor, or check if this or that shipment has finally come in. You have to keep all that paperwork at hand so when the vendor quote or the part finally comes in you can act on it, ship it and send an invoice quickly.

In the perfect world you want to respond immediately to requests for quotes and then convert quotes to sales equally fast - such that you can ship and invoice. In short, you want to cash the check sooner rather than later. Eliminate all the back and forth, all repeated steps (calling someone again and again), hand offs and waiting. You’ve tried Lean elsewhere - now it is time to try it on sales.