Skip to main content

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, I was the manager of a group of worker cooperatives known as the Overberg Kooperatiewe. I was appointed as manager at Montagu Skrynwerke Kooperatief (MSK) by the workers in about 1988. We made machined wood furniture to sell together with the hand-crafted Suurbraak chairs and futons made by an all-woman cooperative called Cotton Cloud. It is an interesting story, but the part I want to relate now is about my very first introduction to what has become known as Lean Management.

Wood turningWhen I first joined, MSK was a general carpentry workshop doing anything from making built-in cupboards to restoring antique furniture. The main feature of the workshop was a huge pile of off-cuts taking up about 20% of the floor space. We developed and found markets for a range of furniture to increase our volumes and create more jobs. To achieve this, we switched to what we called “production carpentry” by changing to a flow layout with five main work stations: heavy machining, light machining, assembly, sanding and finishing. The pile of off-cuts was replaced with racks to hold the raw material stock.

Somewhere I heard about Just-in-Time production. I had no idea what it was other than that one tries to produce “just in time” by reducing batch sizes and inventory. So we standardized on three units at a time with one batch started every day. The size and finish of the batch for the day was determined every morning by checking what stock item in finished goods was low. I remember how difficult it was to convince Hans Swarts (who cut parts in heavy machining) not to make extra parts “just in case”. After much consultation we settled on holding a small stock of cut parts to cover for defects in the process.

Little did I know then that what we implemented at MSK were key practices of Lean Management. Fast, even flow (Schmenner & Swink, 1998) is what we all aspire to in operations management.

Having been involved in improvement work since those days I can remember the anticipation of the publication of “Lean Thinking” by Jim Womack and Dan Jones. Then we mostly used terms such as JIT, WCM and TQM to refer to the work we were doing. After the publication of the book Lean Management became the most common way of referring to this system of management.

Looking back, it is evident that Lean Management evolved through different phases. Initially it was mostly about the tools and techniques that became popular in the West. Value Stream Mapping, A3 problem-solving, Kanban and the like are powerful techniques when used correctly and many of us became enthralled with them. However, we eventually learnt that by themselves, these tools were not enough.

Enabling people to become problem-solvers required a very different way of thinking about problems. So another phase which emphasised Lean Leadership and Lean Thinking emerged. To get out of the command and control mind-set people needed permission to do improvement rather than just follow orders. Leaders needed to learn to develop people and lead by example rather than giving orders. However, even that wasn’t enough to sustain continuous improvement in the organisation.

So nowadays our focus is on lean as a management system. We have realised that to build continuous improvement into the DNA of the organisation we need to think of it as a whole system, rather than as isolated practices or tools and techniques. We also need to keep in mind that there are many kinds of systems that need to work together as a whole: technical and people systems, hard and soft systems, simple and complex systems, controlling and adaptive systems to name a few.

Lean Transformation Framework houseTaking the lead from the Lean Global Network’s thought and practice leadership we are now pre-occupied with what it takes to transform from traditional management to a Lean management system (click here to see the video by John Shook on the Lean Transformation Framework). LIA is increasingly incorporating this kind of thinking in the services it offers to the community of lean practitioners.

To assist organisations with their lean transformation, in 2017 LIA will be offering a Lean Management Development Programme. This eight month programme will cover the practices and skills required to implement a Lean management system across the organisation, from the shop floor to the strategic level. The programme is divided into 12 modules, taught in 5 sessions. In between the 5 sessions, participants will be coached as they apply their learning to specific projects in their place of work. You can find out more about the programme on our website.

Other initiatives we are working on for 2017 include:

  • Lean Learning Clusters, where we will bring together different organisations who are implementing Lean Management to share their experiences and learn together.
  • The Lean Bootcamp, an intensive 3 day onsite learning programme including regular gemba walks and discussions.
  • New workshops aimed at specific sectors, beginning with the automotive sector in Port Elizabeth.

We look forward to hearing more from you and hopefully seeing you in 2017.

Kind regards,



  1. Reference: Schmenner, R. W. & Swink, M.L. (1998). On Theory in Operations Management. Journal of Operations Management, 17, pp 97-113.