by Natasha Arendorf

Waste not, want not

How lean thinking can get books into classrooms

Books for education
books in a box.jpg
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga is getting the brunt of the blame for the lack of textbooks in the places they should be, the classrooms, but it is more likely that the rot permeates the whole delivery chain, says Siyabonga Simayi, who made the issue of textbook delivery the subject of his PhD thesis at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.
Lessons from business
The failure to provide learning materials is an operational inefficiency problem; it is exacerbated by centralisation, with no feedback mechanisms and no built in back-up systems says Elspeth Donovan, Chairperson of Christel House South Africa a privately-operated school for disadvantaged children in Cape Town. Christel House is championing an holistic model of education – an explicit part of what it does is seek ways to address the education challenges in South Africa.
“The lack of delivery of essential learning materials to our young people will ultimately impact everyone in this country,” says Donovan.
According to Simayi, the principles of ‘Lean Thinking’ – a business philosophy originally developed by the automotive industry – can be applied to the textbook crisis to identify wasteful activities in the procurement chain.
Cutting out the middleman
Ways to simplify the supply chain could include allowing schools to choose their own textbooks from an approved list of suppliers, for example. “This would mean a more direct relationship that more effectively meets local needs,” says Simayi. “Plus, the approved books list ensures curriculum consistency, and thus the overall standard and quality of learners.”
About 70% of schools Simayi surveyed indicated that a direct relationship, possibly even a procurement relationship, with the suppliers could save time and money.

Lean Thinking is about reducing waste. And it has already been successfully applied in hospitals across the country through a project run by the Lean Institute Africa – based at the UCT GSB. The application of lean principles helped improve efficiency in one hopsital’s resuscitation room – reducing the time taken to find and hand tools to doctors in an emergency from 400 seconds to 87 seconds. It was a simple change, but made the difference between life and death for some patients. In another example, patients’ waiting time for medication at a clinic was reduced from six hours to 90 minutes.Other savings are to be had by employing the right people and deploying them in the right places, says Simayi.

The time spent capturing and processing orders, for example, can be halved by investing in technology and hiring computer-literate staff. Wasted time waiting for untrained data capturers, or the appointment of new staff should be cut out. “If temporary staff were sought in time and three full-time administrators were employed permanently, the Eastern Cape Department of Education could grow their own skills and achieve continuous improvement,” says Simayi.
He also suggests that a lack of high-level leadership and low level of co-ordination between the main function ‘silos’ in the department is exacerbated by the lack of a central control point of accountability for learners’ books.
Simayi says that using external managing agents to enable the tracking and tracing of deliveries, under the close supervision of the education department could be another solution. With administrative and logistical functions (such as ordering, sorting, packaging and storing of books and stationery, as well as capturing of requisitions, checking and correcting placements of orders and constantly reporting on the delivery system), the distribution of books can be undertaken by local small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs). This system would allow the departments to manage orders and deliveries and know at a glance exactly how many books a school has ordered and received, and even check orders against the number of enrolments in a school.
The appointed SMMEs would buy books and stationery directly from publishers and manufacturers on behalf of the department ensures that any discounts obtained through economies of scale from the publishers will flow back into the budget for learner materials, which in turn will enable the department to buy more books.
Outsourcing would also ensure that the textbook system is not managed as a once-off annual project, but a continuous activity that requires budgeting. There are other advantages too: Quick and efficient service delivery to schools; long-term sustainability; and optimal utilisation of limited resources.
Statistical evidence shows that the pass rate in schools is strongly associated with the availability of textbooks. And it’s one of the factors that indicate whether or not the Department of Basic Education is delivering an acceptable and sustainable service. With Lean Thinking business and government can work together to streamline the schoolbook supply process, and get the books into classrooms where learners need them, for the benefit of society as a whole.
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