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Stopping the Line: A Visit to Abidjan, Ivory Coast. I recently visited Abidjan in the Ivory Coast to speak at the first Lean Global Network-sanctioned event in that part of the African continent, and to run some Introduction to Lean workshops. I had a number of salutary experiences and I would like to share my reflections with you.

Ebola Fears
The visit was at the height of the Ebola crisis. I, and many of my friends and colleagues, was more than a little concerned about the risk of going there. However, the information I gathered from sources like the doctor at the travel clinic and the Centre for Disease Control website indicated that Ebola is only transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids. Not a single case of Ebola had been reported in the Ivory Coast. Therefore objectively, the risk was actually very low. So why the concern in the minds of so many people?

What got me through this experience was reminding myself that a lean thinker practices evidence-based management.

Despite my instincts being fanned by alarmist reports in the media, the facts indicated otherwise. Despite some reluctance from people to shake my hand upon my return I survived my visit in fine shape.

Abidjan Infrastructure
My next observation was that the Abidjan infrastructure (and presumably the rest of the country) was badly run down. Central city roads had multiple potholes, manhole covers were missing on the pavements, few street lights worked and many high-rise buildings stood empty. My hosts expressed immense sadness at the deterioration of Abidjan, a once proud city.

This structural deterioration is not unconnected to the Ebola crisis. The real killer in this situation turns out to be the inadequate healthcare system. In first-world countries Ebola infections rarely go beyond the second infected person because the care and quarantine systems kick in quickly. In developing countries, however, the families and healthcare workers caring for infected patients cannot rely on the health system to provide what is necessary to survive. If I translate this into the challenge of sustaining continuous improvement, the lesson for me is that we need to look after the lean management system if we want to achieve the desired outcome.

Stopping the Line
Coming to the title of this newsletter: My host experienced many challenges before and during the event. At one point they ran out of money to pay the hotel where the event took place, because a big client had not provided payment. Consequently, we arrived at the conference room one morning to find the doors locked and we could not gain entry to the event venue. The hotel management had pulled the Andon cord which, with the workshop participants ready and waiting to start, in turn set off the desired effect: frantic efforts to rectify the situation.

In manufacturing, you pull the Andon cord to stop the production line when something prevents you from doing your work correctly.

It made me realise that we rarely see the line stopped when work cannot be done according to the standard, especially in services. In Lean Institute Africa’s public sector work we often see workarounds becoming highly problematic because they degrade the normal process for doing the work.

Failure demand then increases until the system and the people in it just cannot cope anymore. Viewed from this perspective, the presidential hotline is a true waste in that it probably processes mostly failure demand. I wonder what would happen if public sector staff were empowered to pull the Andon cord when they are not able to do their work properly, due to circumstances beyond their control.

I came back to South Africa encouraged, despite the challenges in Ivory Coast, and elsewhere in Africa. My hosts were a small band of young, enthusiastic, well-educated Ivorian expats based in London. However rather than remain in London, they are on a mission to return to their home country to help to develop its potential. Somewhere along the way they discovered lean management and see it as a way to achieve this. My hope is that with their energy and the effective application of lean management they will achieve their target condition.

Kind regards,

Anton Grütter