Koot Pieterse, professor of operations management at the Business School of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, looks at the challenges and opportunities of applying lean in the tertiary education sector in South Africa.

As elsewhere in the world, lean has also progressed in South Africa from its early use in manufacturing to a wider application in services.

There are three aspects of lean that are of interest in teaching institutions: lean as it is practiced, lean research and lean as it is taught. Universities pride themselves on their traditions and practices, but can benefit from an overhaul of those processes which have become outdated and tedious. Also, tertiary institutions are well situated to contribute knowledge, spread the word on lean and facilitate more effective implementation of lean in industry.

The application of lean in the operations of tertiary institutions has been investigated by several scholars. In a report on a Lean University project with the aim of creating a holistic, sustainable lean transformation, Hines and Lethbridge quoted studies and initiatives in this vein by Rice and Taylor (2003), by Dew (2007), by Emiliani (2004) and several others. At a LEI conference in Eindhoven in 2006 Johan Hendrick s reported on his lean successes at the Technical University in Delft. Fr om these and other studies it is clear that there are real benefits that can be gained from introducing lean in at least some of the university practices.

I cannot pretend to speak for the whole South African tertiary sector, but I can comment on anecdotal evidence gathered through my involvement with the South African lean and academic networks.

First of all, it must be understood that lean in South Africa is still considered a relatively new concept. Although the basic knowledge has been around for several decades and although sporadic efforts have been made to implement some of its aspects in industry, it is only in the last few years that lean has really been pursued with vigour in South African manufacturing and services. These initiatives are driven by competitive pressures, by costs and by the guidance of parent companies among multinationals operating in the country.

In the past few years lean has also been implemented to some extent in services such as financial institutions, in the South African civil service and in healthcare. The introduction of lean content in teaching material at tertiary institutions is therefore long overdue.


Formal courses on lean are strangely absent from the curriculum of several South African institutions where industrial engineering is taught, with a few notable exceptions. At the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in Port Elizabeth, where I teach, room had to be found among the various offerings to introduce formal content and practices of lean.

Given the upheaval that a lean transformation can cause in an organisation and its importance to competitiveness, a case can be made for a more fundamental inclusion of lean in all business learning content. At the NMMU Business School a full elective in the MBA is offered as Lean Enterprise Management and this subject is well attended. Lean in manufacturing as well as in services is covered in the subject, due to our location in the hub of the South African automotive industry and our large complement of students from services such as the Eastern Cape local government.

In other South African business schools, lean is primarily touched on in the teaching of the subject of operations management in the MBA and graduate programmes. In the MBA at the University of Cape Town, lean is given a rather stronger emphasis in a supplemented course on operations management.

The NMMU Business School also offers a range of workshops and courses on lean as part of its responsibility towards successful industry in the Eastern Cape Province. Targeted courses are provided for specific sectors such as healthcare and logistics, whilst other courses focus on the appropriate equipping of different levels of staff in the organisation for their role in a lean implementation. Courses on specific topics, such as VSM and TPM are also provided in conjunction with the department of Industrial Engineering.

Given the rise in lean implementation in local industry, more and more positions had to be created for the lean champions in the organisation. These people have expressed a need for a kind of formal recognition such as the SME/AME/Shingo Prize Lean Certification or the Cardiff MSc in Lean Operations to support their standing. At present we don’t have a qualification to fill this need, but at NMMU we offer a 10-day Lean Specialist programme which goes some way to satisfy the employers.


In South Africa we are well placed to research quite a few interesting aspects of lean which are fairly unique to us. For instance, there are the physical aspects such as long supply distances, the reputed low quality of supplies, deficiencies in the roads and rail infrastructure and power stability.

Then there are the “softer” aspects such as the traditionally strong adversity between management and workers, inherited through our political history, the cultural differences between people that have to work in teams, the low extent of awareness of the benefits of lean and the low quality of training of new recruits. All these have provided fertile breeding ground for research topics and more than sixty dissertations and several doctoral theses have been completed at our university on aspects of the implementation of lean. It is therefore particularly fortunate that expertise exists at NMMU in this study field to support these studies, given the extensive local need for lean implementation.


There are a few specific barriers to the implementation of lean at tertiary institutions such as universities. It would seem as if the very culture of a university militates against such a process.

For one, universities are strong guardians of their respective sets of traditions, which have often been built over very long periods. Procedures and attitudes are shaped by these traditions and it is hard to imagine an organisation where there would be a similar resistance to change.

Academic processes can be very slow and there would really seem to be no reason to accelerate them. To introduce a new course at NMMU would typically take about two years, and there would be great resistance if this process is expedited, since it is believed that the decision making process is compromised if every single aspect and possibility is not identified and discussed in detail.

University committees meet at regular intervals, sometimes only once a year. This classical example of batch processing leads to all kinds of delays and introduces variation and overburdening.

Universities operate in departmental silos, which are vigorously defended. Attempts to let people from these departments work in cross-functional teams have to be very well justified and planned.

One could continue listing the barriers that have to be faced, but it would not contribute to the solving of the problem. What is evident, though, is that most staff members at NMMU are frustrated by the delays and cumbersome procedures and that most of them would support initiatives to eliminate or mitigate the burden of bureaucracy.

At NMMU some strides have been made in this regard. Staff members in the HR department have all attended lean training and they are actively working to identify opportunities for process improvement and waste elimination. It would, however, be much more effective if a centralised strategy is followed and if all departments and sections could buy into this different way of doing things and plans are currently afoot to approach university management with proposals about how this can be effected.

In the meantime, lean is being pursued actively in the Business School where I teach. Staff members have been given some basic training on lean, on problem solving and on waste identification. All the current processes of the Business School are being listed and mapped to provide a proper baseline for standard practices and for process improvement. Current researching MBA students are obtaining user and customer feedback on the kind of issues that have been experienced with the respective processes so that the most cumbersome or irritating ones can be identified. Once these ha ve been found, meetings of all owners and stakeholders of such a process will be convened where improvements can be discussed.

A few early successes have already been achieved without much effort, such as in the process of student applications. Several wasteful steps have been eliminated and the number of errors has also decreased. Support for this effort is fairly positive at this early stage and it is believed that support will grow once the groups have convened, when successes are shown and some esprit de corps is built.

Once this model is shown to work, it can hopefully be exported to other departments and sections as a pilot programme of which most teething problems have been eliminated.

Koot Pieterse is professor of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He lectures extensively on Lean and has written and coauthored several books on the implementation of lean in various business sectors in South Africa.