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'Lean Thinking' in Africa

|Apr 30|magazine11 min read

Q1: As one of the first researchers to introduce lean concepts into South Africa, where did your journey begin?

I joined the UCT Graduate School of Business in 1981. Having had no intention of staying long-term, I got involved in some interesting work and decided to do a PHD in an area that might generate some extra income - productivity and what characterizes highly productive companies. Searching for companies to research, Toyota was the obvious choice; they had become number one in the South African marketplace and had won two consecutive national productivity awards. Over a period of 8-9 months, I interviewed a wide range of people, and ultimately received over 400 questionnaires back. In the process, I got an in-depth look at Toyota South Africa, which had no Japanese share holding. However, 2 years prior to my research, the Manufacturing Director had been invited to Japan to do a course in the Toyota Production System (TPS) and he came back a raving lunatic for zealot, but was only partly effective in infecting his organization with what he had learnt. I did a lot of work with him and one day asked “what is the TPS?” to which he answered “it’s a system for creating thinking people”, which has remained with me as one of the best one-liners yet. It’s not a bunch of tools that you apply through technicians; it has the objective of creating thinking people around purpose and value.
Q2: Having gained a close-up view of Toyota South Africa at a point when the firm was just beginning to learn about the lean concept, where did you go from there? 

As a Professor at the UCT, I taught everything I learnt as I went along, and one of my part-time MBA students in the class of 1985/86 was doing a thesis on the TPS. Having lost his job, he started a consulting company around what I was teaching, and later hired 3 more of my MBA graduates. Around 1990, they asked me to join them in the firm. But to give us a different kudos, asked that I remain a professor. So I had a foot in both doors. Around that time, I initiated a Manufacturing Roundtable, which had 12 member companies that paid a membership fee to request research that would improve their competitiveness. Through this, I was linked to Boston University Manufacturing Roundtable, which in itself was involved in a global network with 10 other universities doing a manufacturing strategy survey in up to 20 countries every 2 years.
Q3: At that time, South Africa was going through a lot of political changes, how did South African manufacturers respond to the lean concept?
They had been protected from global competition and up to that point there had been no pull from the industry to improve productivity. But within days of the February 1990 announcement that Nelson Mandela would be released and the ANC unbanned I got calls from companies wanting to talk about competitiveness. One of those companies was SAB (South African Breweries). The consultancy had been very effective in developing standardized best practice, which is a cornerstone of lean, and packaging it particularly for companies in commodity production. So the consultancy went global and is now working in over 55 countries worldwide with a brilliant list of current and past clients, including Coca-Cola, New Zealand Dairy and BT in Africa.
Q4: Having recently explored the application of Lean principles to the healthcare sector, what changes have you seen?

About 8 years ago, I exploited my past medical students to conduct experiments in hospitals. To me, public healthcare was a special case of public service delivery. So over the years we’ve managed to accumulate some really excellent examples of getting quick and sustained improvements in very poorly resourced hospitals through applying lean practices. For example, a hospital we worked with reported that when needing to access a patient’s file, they were unable to do so 40% of the time. Through lean, we halved that missing files rate, then one of my MBA students reduced the missing files incident to 0 within 3 months, with massive benefits to the hospital and a wonderful impact on staff.
Q5: In what way are you looking to promote the adoption of lean in African organizations?

We ran the Lean Summit of Africa in 2007, which was outrageously successful. Then we registered the non-profit Lean Institute of Africa, and have now been admitted to the Lean Global Network, which has 16 non-profit institutes. We’re also talking to quite significant political leaders in the public sector, but it’s a long-term process of creating the ‘what if’ evidence that says lean works. Lean improves service delivery, lowers production costs, and is hugely people empowering - ultimately it sets people up for success.
Lean Summit of Africa: www.lean.org.za
Lean Global Network: www.leanglobal.org