Back To Basics: Can Lean Thinking Offer SA A Route Out Of...

Back To Basics: Can Lean Thinking Offer SA A Route Out Of Recession?

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As costs rise and resources are squeezed in all sectors and industries across a stagnating South African economy, organisations need to find new ways to unlock value. And lean thinking – a back-to-basics management tool – is demonstrating that it is possible to build capability – even in challenging times.

“Lean management can have an enormous impact on the way an organisation functions, and its popularity is growing as people experience how quickly lean can impact customers, staff morale and budget by eliminating waste,” says Professor Norman Faull, founder and Chair of the Lean Institute Africa and Emeritus Professor at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB).

Primed to host its eighth biennial Lean Summit Africa at Cape Town’s Vineyard Hotel in October, the Lean Institute Africa (LIA) is hoping to draw public sector players as well as business delegates. Lean management methods, long respected in the private sector, have also shown strong results in bumping up efficiencies in SA’s notoriously challenged public sector, notably in health services and hospitals.

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Faull, who will be speaking at the Lean Summit on the topic of ‘What government needs to get right,’ said that working in the health sector in recent years, lean management systems have been used to cut queues and waiting times dramatically in several hospitals around the country by addressing simple things like punctuality, absenteeism and a shift from batch processing to individual processing.

The Summit will highlight how a simple, disciplined approach to systems and operations has the potential to revolutionise efficiency and customer experience.


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Proven within the Japanese automotive industry through the Toyota Way, lean management looks to pare down and re-arrange systems without throwing more resources at the problem or blaming staff, which can be a knee-jerk response in the public sector, says Faull.

To achieve results in the healthcare sector, Faull said that practitioners examined frontline services and introduced simple, visible charts for staff tracking such basics as punctuality and absenteeism on a daily basis.

Seen as a process rather than a solution, the system requires senior management to engage with challenges on a daily basis and to get buy-in from those on the frontline. He likens it to a daily hygiene routine like brushing your teeth and says that such an approach can bring stability and predictability to a system beleaguered by chaos, stress and time pressure.

“Change in any organisation, whether public or private, needs ongoing commitment,” says Mike Rother from the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering who will be the keynote speaker at the Lean Summit. “Don’t look for an answer and think you’re done.”

Rother will be drawing on wisdom from his book Toyota Kata, which has had a profound influence on lean practitioners globally. Through his Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata (a Japanese term that is typically used in martial arts but which can be applied to routine or patterns) he sets forth simple steps towards continuous improvement, adaptability and achievement within an organisation.

Faull adds that the process invites people to be open to constructive criticism. This can be difficult in South Africa, he says, particularly with race playing a role in the South African historical context. “But in the Toyota way, faults are there to be acknowledged and improved upon. In such a culture risks can be taken, and significant changes made.”

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It is only by taking such risks and making those changes that organisations can start to build resilience. And in a world of shrinking resources and increased competition, the rewards for those who get it right are worth the effort, says Faull.

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The Lean Summit Africa 2016, Building Capability in Challenging Times, will run from 19 to 21 October at the Vineyard Hotel and Conference Centre, Newlands, Cape Town. To register log onto www.lean.org.za/summit2016.

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