GETTING TO KNOW US – This month, the latest affiliate of the Lean Global Network opened its doors in Botswana. We spoke to the new institute’s director to learn about her plans.
Interviewee: Sharon Visser, Lean Institute Botswana
Photos by: Leroy Tulip
Roberto Priolo: Dear Sharon, welcome to the Lean Global Network. It is great to have you with us! Can you tell us about your career, so we get to know you better?
Sharon Visser: I started my career as an Assistant to the CEO of two companies here in Botswana and ended up at different times managing both of his companies – one being a logistics firm and the other Ngami Toyota (a car dealership Planet Lean readers will be familiar with by now – read more here). I took about five years off working for him and worked as the Operations Manager of a high-end luxury safari company that still operates in the Okavango Delta. They also operated an air charter company that I worked very closely with. In all these positions, I gained experience in many areas of business management. I have not had any formal training, only hands-on experience and mentoring. Up to when Ngami was purchased by the Halfway Group. I knew nothing about lean thinking and used traditional management techniques. In fact, I was probably one of the only Dealer Principals in Southern Africa with absolutely no Toyota training.
RP: I was lucky enough to visit Ngami last year, and witness its incredible transformation. What was the secret behind this successful turnaround?
SV: I think that the timing was right when lean came into our midst. We were in crisis, and lean gave us hope that we could overcome our difficulties. Our success is the result of a combination of factors. There is no doubt that having access to a good coach – Lean Enterprise Academy’s Dave Brunt – and being able to call on Terry O’ Donoghue’s experience whenever we needed to bounce off an idea really helped us gain ground. We were also very lucky that the ownership of the Halfway Group had the vision to use lean as a strategy and that our team at Ngami has been so trusting and supportive. On many occasions, when I was frightened to carry out an experiment, they were the ones supporting me.
RP: With Ngami and lean deli, lean seems to have made great inroads in your town, Maun. What’s the situation in the rest of Botswana and what potential do you see for lean in the country?
SV: Many businesses in Botswana are struggling to keep up with the demands of a world that seems to be speeding up in every way. Much of the problems we have are laid at the door of poor work ethic, an excuse that I can remember using often. Now I recognize that the lean metholody really works in our environment and other business are seeing the difference it makes for us. I think that the door has now opened and we need to walk in quickly. We are now working with University of Botswana and Botswana National Productivity: our real goal is to use lean to build up the capabilities of our nation as this is something that we can all stand behind together.
RP: It’s great that the Lean Global Network is opening a second institute on the African continent. In your opinion, what systemic issues could lean help to tackle in Africa as a whole?
SV: Lean can give the ordinary worker and business owner pride in every-day tasks. This in turn improves self-esteem and breaks down “third-world thinking”, something that we desperately need to do in Botswana and the rest of Africa. As this kind of thinking makes us less than we actually are, it is a lie that Africa comforts herself with. Being comfortable in that place is not good. Lean helps us to understand we can be as good – and, why not, better – than first-world countries at providing value to the customer.
RP: What will the purpose of Lean Institute Botswana be? What do you hope to see in five years’ time?
SV: Botswana has always considered its small size – we are a nation of just over two million people – as a disadvantage to achieving success. Yet, at our first ever lean summit earlier this month, we had 110 lean thinkers! Perhaps, when it comes to spreading lean thinking, our small population can be turned into an advantage! The entire country of Botswana often feels like a small village and our verbal telegraph system often appears to be faster than our Internet. In five years’ time, I would like to see examples of lean in every industry in Botswana.
Sharon Visser is the Dealer Principal of Halfway Ngami in Maun, Botswana, and the director of the newly-opened Lean Institute Botswana.