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Think inside the box to solve service delivery crisis

Professor Norman H B Faull


The Institute for Security Studies reports that at least five service delivery protests occur in South Africa every day. There is an effective and simple solution to our service delivery challenges and it lies in proper and effective operations management. Sound operations management, specifically the implementation of lean principles, can see rapid improvements in systems. Sometimes you can fix a problem in a week.

We can bring about huge transformation in the way an organisation functions by implementing lean principles. We need to think inside the box. Systems speak to us and they speak in a language of problems. If we listen and respond correctly, we can and will improve the system.

Lean principles at work

As the founder of the Lean Institute Africa (LIA), I have been given an opportunity to practice what I preach. Recently, I was appointed as an advisor for the department of performance monitoring and evaluation (DPME) within the Presidency and am helping to design and roll out an operations management support programme across government departments, with the ultimate aim of fixing service delivery in South Africa. It's a preposterous plan, but it could just work...

Lean management is essentially the intelligent management of resources needed to deliver the goods and services clients want or – put another way - the 'making it' side of any organisation.

And although lean has its roots in the automotive industry (The Toyota Way), there are numerous case studies emerging of how lean thinking has had a dramatic effect on service provision:

  • A project for the national department of health in 2010 and 2011, for example, saw waiting hours in an outpatient pharmacy slashed and overtime hours worked by staff disappear by simply re-arranging how things were organised in the unit.

The staff said they needed more pharmacy assistants, but we achieved these results without appointing new staff. Often we encounter a 'lack-of' mindset but what this shows is a blindness to process. Organisations are frequently over resourced but because the burden on the system is variable (for example all the patients arrive at the same time), staff actually feel overwhelmed.

Key to resolving these issues is simply to observe and ask a lot of questions. There is no magic involved.

The approach is already paying dividends for the City of Melbourne

This city is rated year after year to be one of the most livable cities in the world. Since 2009, the City of Melbourne has successfully rolled out lean principles across its operations and is frequently held up as an example of best practice in this area:

  • All 30 branches (departments) within City of Melbourne have applied lean within their service streams to make things better, faster, cheaper and easier for customers, staff, the organisation and the community.

Leading effectively is about creating thinking people. You don't do this by telling people what to do. You ask questions about how they organise themselves, how long it takes, what are the problems, what can we do about it. You don't necessarily want people to work faster but to take waste out of their cycle so there's more time for value-added work.

In this sense, my 'preposterous plan' is in fact a pragmatic plan that aims to engender good performance in the public sector. It proposes teaching a system of lean principles to selected government service nodes (hospitals, police stations and schools) to solve specific problems (lack of textbook delivery or long queues in outpatient units) and then cascading this knowledge throughout the service delivery chain.

The plan consists of three components:

1. A preparatory phase: During this phase, the aim is to get word out that the plan exists and to recruit government departments into the process,

2. Core action phase: This phase aims for rapid process improvement and the inculcation of sustaining behaviors, and

3. Research phase: Ongoing research will inform how the plan evolves and what lessons are learned and applied to keep things moving forward

We are proposing to government that by implementing lean principles there can be impact, ability to scale up and sustain improvements and develop capability to continue improvement.

A provincial health department has been the first in line to start to implement the plan. I was called to their office recently and the MEC for health asked for our programme to start virtually immediately. Two two-day workshops were attended by CEOs of all of the provinces hospitals in July. It's very exciting to have begun the process, because we absolutely have to address public sector service delivery in this country.

Professor Norman H B Faull is the emeritus professor of business administration at the UCT Graduate School of Business. He holds the following degrees: BSc BEng(Mech Aero) Stell, MSc (Air Transport Engineering) Cranfield,  MBA PhD Cape Town. Professor Faull’s specialties include: operations management, strategy and implementation; lean thinking in operations; supply chain management and world-class manufacturing.