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Waste not, want not: how Lean Thinking can get textbooks into classrooms

| November 13, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Joanne Lillie

Textbooks can be efficiently delivered to all schools if unnecessary elements are eliminated from the supply chain through the application of tried and tested business principles, according to research from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).

This year, two million pupils in Limpopo, and many of their peers in other provinces like the Eastern Cape, have had their learning compromised because their textbooks were not delivered.1 Although these two provinces represent the worst of the education materials debacle, the problem affects the whole country and has done so for some time, says Siyabonga Simayi, who made the issue of textbook delivery the subject of his PhD thesis through UCT GSB.2 Despite departmental policy that all pupils should have both text and workbooks available to them, the availability of textbooks still varies radically from province to province. Limpopo is the worst affected, with only 11% of pupils receiving prescribed books.3

The whole delivery chain problematic

It is likely that the problem permeates the whole delivery chain, surmises Simayi. For example, decisions around the choice of textbooks, the suppliers used and procurement processes for the Eastern Cape – which was the poorest-performing province last year with a matric pass rate of just 58.1% – are mostly handled at a central office located in Zwelitsha. This suggests to Simayi, whose research included investigating the reforms and decentralisation plans initiated in the late 1990s, that the delivery of learning materials is still not effective. Rather, the process of supply still remains centralised, with the lines of authority blurred and the definition of responsibilities as clear as mud.

Lessons from business

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. Ways to simplify the 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 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 hospital’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.

In the Eastern Cape school setting, Simayi estimates that with the application of these philosophies, books could reach their destinations 25% faster. For example, cutting out district offices could eliminate a six-week wait for books. Things happen faster when schools talk directly to the provincial head office: “Systems work best when they operate as close to the delivery as possible,” says Simayi. His PhD study found that activities overseen by district offices do not add value to the supply of textbooks. “If schools and the Eastern Cape Department of Education (DoE) communicated directly, you could achieve a delivery time of two weeks instead of eight.”

Putting the right people in the right places

Further savings could be made by employing the right people and deploying them in the right places, suggests Simayi. The time spent capturing and processing orders, for example, could be halved by investing in relevant technology and hiring computer-literate staff. Wasted time waiting for untrained data capturers or the appointment of new staff should be eliminated. “If temporary staff were sought in time and three full-time administrators were employed permanently, the Eastern Cape DoE could enhance capacity, develop skills and achieve continuous improvement,” Simayi advises.

He also suggests that a lack of high-level leadership and low level of coordination between the main function ‘silos’ in the department is exacerbated by the lack of a central control point of accountability for the ordering and timeous delivery of learners’ books. Over the years, the Eastern Cape DoE has relegated the task of the procurement and delivery of learner support materials to managers already busy with other portfolios, meaning that this important function falls by the wayside more often than not, as people are overwhelmed and move on. “Those appointments were never senior enough to ensure compliance with necessary timelines for the supply of textbooks,” asserts Simayi.

The result is insufficient integration, inadequate pressure for swift decisions to be made and actions to be taken and unsatisfactory oversight and monitoring of compliance across the supply chain. “Establishment of a board of directors in each province would assist in determining budgets and personnel requirements – particularly administrative – for the capturing and processing of requisitions,” believes Simayi.


Finally, 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 requisitions, checking and correcting placements of orders and constantly reporting on the delivery system) taken care of, the distribution of books could be undertaken by local small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs). This system would allow the DoE 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, ensuring that any discounts obtained through economies of scale from the publishers would flow back into the budget for learner support 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.

It’s simple: streamline the system, says Simayi

Statistical evidence shows that the pass rate in schools is linked to the availability of textbooks. And it’s one of the factors that indicate whether or not the DoE is delivering an acceptable and sustainable service. Using Lean Thinking principles, 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.


1. See, for example, Maponya, F. (2012) ‘Visually impaired pupils get wrong books.’ Available at: 2012/07/26/blind-pupils-left-in-dark; Staff writer. (2012) ‘Education scandal deepens’. Available at:; and Staff writer (2012) ‘More textbooks dumped in Limpopo’. Available at: 2012/09/06/more-textbooks-dumped-in-limpopo.

2. The textbook debacle has resulted in legal action. See, for example, Gernetsky, K. (2012) ‘Fresh bid to force textbook delivery in Limpopo.’ Available at: force-textbook-delivery-in-limpopo and Veriava, F. (2012) ‘Court cases initiate domino effect.’ Available at: 2012-08-31-court-cases-initiate-domino-effect/.

3. See, for example, Macfarlane, D. (2012) ‘Textbooks crisis: damning report fails Motshekga.’ Available at: textbooks-crisis-damning-report-fails-motshekga/.

Category: Summer 2012

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