Bringing the message of lean to Africa
I just returned from a trip to the country of Zambia in Africa. I was there visiting and helping some close family friends that are missionaries. John and Kendra are not typical missionaries. While they do have a very nice training center which is used for a Christian pastor school, family activities and other community events, the main focus and thrust of their work is setting up indigenous economic development. John has always said that the problem with Africa and residents of that continent is that they have been saved “too many times.” What they need is a robust economy to take their values and principles to earn a living for themselves, their family, their community and their country. This is exactly what John and Kendra have been doing, and they have made very significant impact both spiritually and economically.
John is no stranger to what it takes to make this dramatic culture and economic change in the depths of Africa. His parents were missionaries in Congo (a country along the northern border of Zambia) and arrived there in 1950. He has spent his entire life living among these people and their culture. He knows it firsthand.
What does this have to do with manufacturing? A number of John and Kendra’s economic development projects are manufacturing operations - and this is where I spent a significant amount of time during my visit. I had been talking with John for several years about implementing lean systems in their manufacturing operations and even had him read several books to learn more. While there, I spent time in one of the manufacturing operations working with the operational leadership and shop folks to develop a lean model area and implementation plan.
Time will tell if they can successfully implement a lean business model. And I plan to return next year - or maybe sooner - to continue to help. I will communicate via e-mail and digital photos until then to help them proceed.
The most interesting point I noticed was that while this operation in Zambia was deep in the middle of the bush and it was primitive by western standards - that is, a simple building, simple process and equipment, simple product - it contained the exact same issues and problems as any manufacturing operations here in the United States. They naturally were using batch production and always had a shortage of something. They also continued to work, so they had plenty of inventory of everything except the specific component(s) they needed to finish the product for shipping. They were not fully utilizing their operators’ knowledge and skills to develop better methods (kaizen) to stabilize the processes, reduce time/waste, or improve quality, particularly decreasing rework. I saw the exact same thing in the depths of the Dark Continent that I have seen repeatedly in the brightly lit and well-funded plants of the U.S. I left them with the same principles and practices to apply that I would at any manufacturer here in the States.
Most Americans enjoy seeing others succeed. They want to see others less fortunate raise their standard of living, their level of knowledge and skills, and contribute positively to their community. They want to see other cultures succeed using the same principles that have made the Great Experiment the most successful civilization in history. I got to witness the beginning of this same seed being planted. My hope is that I will see this seed grow into a small sapling on my next visit. It also makes me more adamant about keeping these principles - of the free market and lean working together - strong here at home. Leaning out Africa raises the level of both the Africans and us. Indeed this is a noble effort on John and Kendra’s part!
- A comic and the economy: Lessons from Calvin’s Mom There has been an e-mail going around with a copy...