The CEO of the Lean Institute Africa, Dr Anton Grütter, undertakes an annual journey to China to teach on the Shanghai University MBA programme as a visiting professor. This year he was also invited to speak at the Lean Enterprise China Summit 2014 in Shanghai in June this year. He has returned with some fascinating insights into the Chinese drive to develop their people and their economy.

He says “while I have only experienced a small slice of Chinese working life, it has made me aware of the enormous strides that the country has made in recent years. I think there may well be some important lessons for South Africa.”

The Lean Enterprise China’s Summit 2014

This year the theme of the Chinese Lean Summit was “Lean Transformation in China”. The keynote speaker was Matthew Lovejoy, owner of Acme Alliance (with plants in America, Brazil and China) and co-author of “Seeing the Whole Value Stream”. The theme of his talk was that lean thinking and management had to be more than skin-deep to be effective and sustainable. He illustrated this using the striking image of a fruit that had apple skin on the outside, but was an orange on the inside. Imagine biting into one of those!

More importantly, as the leader of his company’s lean transformation journey he led from the front, to the extent that he moved his desk onto the shop floor. He spoke passionately about the role he plays to continuously drive the learning in the organisation and its people. It turns out that he is the real-life embodiment of the “relentless leader” that is the theme of the Lean Summit Africa 2014.

It was evident from the other company presentations that organisations serious about their lean transformation journey (few as they may be), made an equally serious investment into the resources required to negotiate the change process successfully. And they understood that an investment involves not only planting the seed, but also patiently looking after it until it grows to fruition.

Shanghai University’s GLMBA Programme

The reason for Dr Grütter teaching is a typical example of Chinese pragmatism. He was invited not only to teach operations management but also because of the “Global/Local” MBA programme at the Shanghai University business school. It is taught in English by a foreign faculty to students who want exposure to global management thinking, while improving their English at the same time.

“I found the students to be eager learners. They were very hard-working and meticulous in their preparation for class” said Dr Grütter. The entire module was taught in four days over two weekends with the class running from 0900 to 1800, while the students hold down full-time jobs. The students’ spoken English was of quite a high standard, but Dr Grutter had to insist on typed assignments only, because their written English was influenced by the figurative writing style of the Chinese characters.

The students applied themselves to the session with enthusiasm and skill. This was demonstrated in the students achieving the best-ever results in the process-improvement simulation game, developed by the Lean Institute Africa. The game provides an in-class learning experience of how to improve operational performance. Dr Grütter will be offering a workshop based on the same simulation game on the day prior to the Lean Summit Africa 2014 (Visit for more information on the Summit programme). It will be interesting to see whether the target of 5 minutes 16 seconds, set by the Chinese students, will be beaten by the local workshop participants.

The Lessons Learnt in China

It is clear that China is a nation on the march to prosperity, but in their own unique way.

In Shanghai, electric bicycles and scooters, by far, outnumber any other means of transport. A basic, but sturdy electric bicycle was also relatively cheap at about R4,000 (around $400). Think of how electric bicycles could transform the lives of poor South Africans – and make use of Eskom’s under-utilised night-time capacity, thereby improving the cost-effectiveness of electricity generation in South Africa.

It was also very noticeable that most people on the street had up-to-date smart phones. Many used their phones to watch their favourite TV programme while on the underground Metro trains, but, with such a high level of smart phone penetration, the potential for economic activity and education must be enormous.

The main lesson he learnt from his Chinese experience was “their single-minded dedication to the task at hand” says Dr Grütter. “This is the kind of approach necessary to drive operational improvement in organisations and economic growth in society. We would be well-served to learn that lesson from our Chinese counterparts”.

Anton - China anton1