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This article is reproduced from the Confederation of Zimbabwean Industries‘ Business Intelligence Report, printed in March 2016. You can download the original pdf here.

CZI hosted a three day Introduction to Lean Management workshop from 8 – 9 February, 2016 in Harare where a Lean Management specialist, Dr. Anton Grütter was invited to conduct the training for senior executives from among CZI members. He went on to do the same training for members in Bulawayo. CZI Membership Services and Marketing Manager, Kuda Matare had an interview with Dr Grütter on the subject of Lean Management. Below is the full interview.

You were in Zimbabwe at the CZI 2015 congress. CZI has invited you back to conduct training in lean management. There has been a lot a talk about lean management, lean manufacturing and lean processes. What exactly is it all about?
It’s a lean management system. Sometimes people just talk about lean but it’s a new form of management system aimed at improving operational performance and is applicable in any organisation and so it’s not just limited to manufacturing. It originally started in manufacturing and the first company to really to make a big success of it was Toyota. So as a management system the important thing is that while there are some basic principles, in order to make it work in any organisation on a sustainable basis, you need to change a lot of the elements of traditional ways of managing and how they work together to deliver products and services. That’s why we see it as a management system rather than as a set of tools or a technique or ideology.

What are the areas of focus for an organisation to achieve Lean?
Let me first outline the basic principles of lean as a management system. These come from a book by James Womack and Daniel Jones called Lean Thinking, published in 1996. They really established lean management as a discipline. The first thing is you need to focus on creating value for the customers. That is the basic point of departure.

So the focus is on creating Value?
We want to identify the process steps that create value, and those that don’t create value, we regard as waste and we try to eliminate them. In operations management, our focus is on all kinds of different processes such as manufacturing, administrative, commercial and some of the activities in these processes create value and others don’t.

In the whole process, we question the way we do things. The aim is to make things flow. We talk about fast, even flow, it could be materials in manufacturing or information in an IT system, or people in a hospital. Whatever it is that we are working on, that’s what we want to flow through the process. If something is not moving through the process then we ask why not, what is the obstacle preventing it from moving forward, and that way we eliminate those obstacles and try to get whatever we are working on through the process.

The other principle is to make what the customer wants only when they want it. What that boils down to is to try and match our capacity to make the products that is matching the rate of demand of the customer. The challenge is that demand fluctuates while capacity is often difficult to change in the short-term.

The last principle was articulated as striving for perfection and that comes through continuous improvements. Perfection is not something we ever achieve, but we are continually trying to move towards perfection so that we become better all the time.

It is important to highlight that in each sector there specific techniques and approaches that are useful in the kinds of processes used in that sector. In manufacturing the advantage is that you can actually see the process. So you can go into the factory and see whether things are flowing, you can see the defects and put in place mechanism to address the problems. Services can be more challenging because a service is often intangible and needs to be delivered in front of the customer.

And what about the human element in achieving the objective of lean management?
There is need to involve the people. There are two sides to lean management systems, that is the technical process side and the other side is to build the capabilities of the people. So you have to work on both sides. Technical processes often fail because the people involved in the actual process have not been brought on board.

The problem is we have habits that are hard to change. Often people get into senior positions by being directive and this style of management is inconsistent with the lean way of managing. What is necessary is that managers need to learn how to empower and develop their people. This is done by giving staff problems to solve and by asking questions that make people think, rather than telling them what to do. And senior management need to lead the way by practicing this new way themselves to show how it is done.

In the Zimbabwean manufacturing sector scenario characterised by old machinery, inadequate capital for retooling and lagging behind technologically, how applicable is lean and to what extent can it have real impact?

Lean management is particularly suited for these kinds of circumstances. The starting point with respect to technology is to do the best that can be achieved with what we have. The idea that technology will save us from the problems we experience is not always true. I am not saying technology is not important, but it’s about getting value with what you have before spending big money. And bear in mind that it is possible to get 40%, sometimes even more, improvement in operational performance over time with lean management.

You have been in Zimbabwe for the past few days conducting training at the invitation of CZI. What kind of response and participation have you experienced during training?
It has been very positive. A number of participants were telling me that it was interesting and insightful to learn how lean manufacturing works. In fact after the workshop one of the participants sent us an email which said: “Wow! 3 days well spent. I am busy cleaning out the waste in my office right now … I am shocked at the quantum!”

However I would like to add that there is a common misunderstanding that lean management is only about elimination of waste. What needs to be understood is that in the first place it is about creating value for the customer and then about elimination of waste.

A number of participants want to take this further. CZI can play an important role in facilitating and developing capability of lean management. The Lean Institute Africa will be happy to support such an initiative.

The way you have explained it, it seems that it helps in improving competitiveness in organisations?
Yes but competitiveness is not just a cost issue. If you deliver at the lowest price but the customer wants better quality, you can’t say you are competitive. So other ways of creating value, like quality, delivery, flexibility and service are also drivers of competitiveness and each organisation need to understand their market need and strike a balance on the trade-offs between these value drivers.

What kind of challenges can organisations face in the implementation of lean and how do you overcome such challenges?
Buy in. Buy in at lower levels of the organisation is less of problem, but at senior levels it can be more of a problem. At lower levels in the organisation, shop floor people might be sceptical initially, but once they discover that lean management works by making their work easier and quicker to do and that it is an opportunity to work not only with their hands but applying more of the brain as well, it becomes appealing to them.

For senior management, the challenge often is time to support their people to do improvement work as there may be other important things to do. For them to spend even half a day at the shop floor is in fact a huge thing and when the message spreads at the lower level about senior management spending some time at the shop floor. Taking time to interact on the shop floor encourages the lower level as they believe that they are being taken seriously. When the CEO shows management how to be lean leader, they become master coaches and this is a key part of how to institutionalise lean management.

The other major challenge is the need to realise and appreciate that lean transformation is a journey that requires fundamental changes. The problem is people want quick fixes but that doesn’t work. There is a lot pressure on management to deliver yesterday. Lean management works as process and it takes time to deliver the results.

And lastly, who is Anton Grütter?
I got into production as a manager of a worker-owned small production enterprise which manufactures hand crafted furniture in a small rural village called Suurbraak in the Western Cape, South Africa many years ago. Having spent some years working in the cooperative, I decided to go and learn about management, so I went to do an MBA at the University of Cape Town and discovered that operations management is also about people development. I then did a PhD on the effectiveness of shop floor improvement teams in medium-size manufacturers. I became a lecturer in University of Western Cape and now I am CEO of the Lean Institute Africa.

If you would like to learn more about lean management, you can sign up for one of our Introduction to Lean workshops here.