In South Africa we live and work in challenging times, but spare a thought for organisations in our neighbouring country, Zimbabwe. Last year I spoke at the annual conference of the Confederation of Zimbabwean Industries. Earlier this year they invited me back to facilitate Introduction to Lean workshops and advise on a new initiative to support Zimbabwean industry with Lean Management. As you can see from our name it is part of LIA’s mission to support the dissemination of Lean Management in Southern Africa.

Plows stacked waiting for market

Agricultural equipment piles up due to a downturn in the market.

At the end of December the Zimbabwean government, the largest employer in the country, could not pay the salaries of civil servants. One of the companies that we worked with in the food processing sector suffered a forty percent drop in demand as a result. Another company, a producer of agricultural equipment had to stop production because they had run out of space to store finished goods.

However, the situation is not as simple as it seems. To be sure, many companies have had to curtail operations, but those remaining strike me as remarkably resilient under these trying times. Not only are they keeping going as best they can with current operations, but they are investing in their people to do problem-solving and build continuous improvement systems. I don’t think Lean Management can cure all problems an organisation might face, especially those emanating from an environment as severely challenging as in Zimbabwe, but it is interesting to note that many of the clothing and footwear companies that survived the cheap imports from the East introduced practices such as modular (cellular) production.

So what is it that distinguishes these organisations from those that do not survive? My informal observations are that they:

  • Have management that are eternally inquisitive, always asking questions and looking for opportunities to learn.
  • Create an environment where the people in the organisation who become enthusiastic about something like Lean Management can constructively apply their drive to improve.
  • Even during tough times they invest in their people and the systems that sustain improvement. Looking through the short-term into the long-term.
  • Find creative ways to get the knowledge and advice they need. Like making use of pro-active industry associations to share the expense of external advisors. And then making those advisors work hard!

What was also interesting was to discover that there are major investments coming into the country from South Africa and elsewhere. Of those that I came to know about, one was in the hospitality sector and another in primary agricultural processing. And what was really fascinating was that in the latter, the new investor started introducing Lean Management practices.

It would seem to me that understanding the introduction of a Lean Management System as an investment, rather than as a training expense, is important to the success of the initiative. Investments are managed differently from expenses. For one, there needs to be an understanding that an investment takes time to mature and produce results. So managing the investment process according to a realistic time line is necessary. For another, given the strategic nature of investments, senior management need to play a key role in nurturing the investment. Especially during challenging times.

Kind regards,

Anton Grütter

P.S. Building Capability in Challenging Times is the theme of the 8th Lean Summit Africa. There are only 200 places in total, and they are filling up fast. You can learn more about the Summit and register for it here:

P.P.S. There are only a few days to go before the annual SAPICS conference, but there is still time to register. At the 38th Conference you will have access to some of the most up to date and relevant supply chain education and knowledge sharing available anywhere in the world. It’s not just about the theory either, learn first-hand from the experience and expertise of other supply chain professionals from around the world – and all at a fraction of what it would cost you to travel overseas. For those with APICS qualifications you can earn up to 24 maintenance points by attending the conference! Click the image below to register.