Is your international business as successful as you want it to be?  Apply four powerful lean principles to take international sales to the next level.


Turn the art of selling into the science of sales.  A key principle of lean operations is eliminating waste.  So, don’t waste your time or customers time in markets where you don’t add value.  Ask your customers and partners WHY they want to do business with you.  Don’t ask them once, ask them four times to really understand the impact and outcome that they value in your business relationship.  This is The Law of Four Whys.  Ask the Four Whys repeatedly, in selecting a new country, early in the entry process, as business gains momentum, and as the market matures.  The answers change over time.  Do you stand out in the crowd from the perspective of your customers and partners? If the value you bring to a market is satisfactory but not exceptional, you probably shouldn’t be there.  Invest in markets where you provide unique compelling value.


Select international markets with facts, not feelings.  Being data-driven and using scientific method is crucial to running a lean operation.  Ask the BIG questions first — political alignment, economic climate, receptivity to American imports, and investment worthiness.  These are the elephants that sit in the four corners of a decision to enter or continue operations in a country.  Look at the data, don’t base a decision on opinion.  There are plenty of statistical resources for economic information, import/export data, market analysis, business transparency, and political relations.  Use the fundamentals of scientific methods: ask the question, find a relevant statistical resource, construct a hypothesis, test that hypothesis, analyze the results, and make a decision.  All business decisions involve risk.  Reduce risk for your company and your customers by making data-driven decisions and re-evaluating those critical decisions when conditions change.


Empower champions to blaze the trail.  Committed leadership from individual contributor to senior executive is a prerequisite for successful lean operations. International business is the same; the company must be empowered at all levels to embrace a country.  It means looking for new ways to work, not just new languages or currency to deal with.  It means adding a new member to the team, a mountain guide, an established individual or organization, residing in country, speaking the local language, and having deep relevant business experience.  With the help of a mountain guide encourage everyone to look for country alignment and care about small things, not just the big stuff.  Empower everyone.  Make them champions to eliminate waste in process, product, and approach that are not applicable or valuable in-country.  It improves efficiency and effectiveness.


Demand authenticity and trust.  The foundation for any successful operation, including lean operations, is communication.  Build authenticity and trust into structured communications within your international and global operations. Communication, consensus, collaboration, and clarity give strength to trusting relationships in company and in-country.  Build trust.  Don’t try, don’t get close, and as Tom Peter’s would say “under promise and over deliver”.  Trust is an individual thing — follow-through, add value, follow-up, and participate.  Trust is a company thing — guarantees, proof-of-concept, trials, and free-miums.


Are you built for global?  Be patient.  Successful lean operations take years to build and master.  Successful international business will also take years to build and master.  We live in a world of results.  We get that.  But consider how long it took to shape your domestic business.  With help from the book “Built for Global” by Pearlstein and Gregory can dramatically increase the success of your international business.  Look for the book on in print and Kindle.  It’s filled with tips, tools, and stories that will help you navigate international business and enter new markets.  It is also a guide for selecting new countries and assessing your ability to succeed.


This post was inspired by Toyota’s principles for effective lean operations and the HBR article “Lean Knowledge Work” by Statts and Upton first published 2011.   Relentless attention to detail, commitment to data-driven experimentation, increasing efficiency, and eliminating waste will improve processes and output for any business from simple to complex operations.


Janet Gregory is a veteran sales executive and co-founder of KickStart Alliance. For assistance with entering new markets, sales strategy, sales planning, or management workshops contact  Janet is coauthor of Built for Global.  For help in aligning sales & marketing for results contact any member of the KickStart Alliance team.