Lean Enterprise in Africa

by Barry O'Reilly

Last week I achieved a significant personal goal. When we released Lean Enterprise: How High Performance Organizations Innovate At Scale, I set myself an objective to visit every continent on the globe to engage local communities and business leaders interested in the mission to change the way we work in large organisations forever. I’m delighted to say that by visiting South Africa last week I have achieved it – in 300 days!

Lean Enterprise Africa

Why I wanted to go to Africa… and save the best till last

Working at ThoughtWorks has helped me experience and understand what true social and economic justice means. I’m also lucky to have colleagues and friends that believe in equality and opportunity for all. Therefore to help me develop a deeper understanding of the South African market I asked Aslam Khan, our General Manager at ThoughtWorks, for his viewpoint;

“On the continuum of software development in South Africa, we have 100 year old companies like Standard Bank and highly successful startups like Fundamo (acquired by Visa), and iKubu (acquired by Garmin).  In that continuum we have extremely lean and nimble organisations that can compete with global tech giants in terms of process, efficiency and sophistication of software solutions.  We also have slow changing organisations encumbered by decades of legacy software. That takes a long time to change and that change is being forced by a shift from product and service centricity to customer centricity. Thus, software and processes need to change to accommodate the shift in strategy.  Many will then look towards becoming a lean enterprise.

Regardless of the continuum, the limiting factor is the density of software talent in the country.  The history of apartheid and its decimation of the education and social systems has yielded a privileged minority with the necessary skills to tackle a national and continental scale sector.  Compared to the other countries in the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) cluster, South Africa is lagging in density of software developers.  This cannot be addressed until we address the upstream social and education problems.  Until then, South Africa will continue to be a net importer of software.”

We have many challenges in the technology industry based on diversity of thought, gender and privilege. That is why capability building is such a key aspect to creating a lean enterprise.

Talent shortage

There will never be enough experienced people in new technologies — no one will have five years of lessons learnt in the latest and greatest programming language or tool! This is why it is so important to create a culture of experimentation and learning in your organisation. You need to build your people while they build new solutions to new customer problems. Organisations that will thrive in the future are not the ones with the most people with 15 years experience in Java. It will be the ones that have created a capability to continuously learn new skills and technologies, adapting to the changing environment both inside and outside your business. As my co-author Joanne Molesky often says, “What worked for you today, may not work tomorrow”.

So what did you do?

The trip kicked off with a local meetup event in the ThoughtWorks office in Johannesburg with my friend and colleague Rouan Wilsenach. The event was targeted at practitioners with the goal for Rouan and I to share our experiences, lessons learnt, along with the tools and techniques we regularly use when trying to drive change in large scale organisations.

With Rouan

What was billed as a 45 minute session turned into a 2 hour dialogue between ourselves and everyone in the room. Typically I try to keep the presentations short and emphasise the question time at the end. However, the attendees in Johannesburg just wanted to keep going and going. More questions, more stories, more sharing. It was without doubt one of the most enjoyable sessions I’ve done.

Meeting Business Leaders

The following evening we ran another of our Lean Enterprise Executive Briefings in Sandton with 25 business leaders from some of South Africa’s largest organisations in attendance. It was a very open and transparent session, with many attendees sharing their own experience and learnings on embracing lean enterprise in their organisations.

As with many of these sessions, creating a space for leaders in different organisation to collaborate with one another in a safe environment fosters a great sense of community and a network to know you’re not alone.

The key themes that emerged are well known to us all. Many organisations have suffered the crippling consequences of not adapting to new business models because of the enormous challenge of developing a new organisation mindset. The difficulty of trying to balance experimenting with new ways of working while still achieving lofty targets to improve delivery or reduce costs is daunting.

The most vigorously debated subject was understanding the true outcomes of strategies they have devised to achieve organisational objectives and goals. It easy to point at Executives, make jokes and say they have no idea what is happening in the organisation, but must remember that a lot of the time they are making decisions based on information as it is collated and presented to them by others. The details and facts are so watered down and sanitised by the time they reach their desk that they are essentially meaningless. They are making decisions in good faith based on watermelon reporting: hence it should be no surprise that they don’t achieve the desired result.

The challenge for all of us is to create an environment where it is safe to share the real information across the entire company without repercussion. To make better decisions, we need better quality of data on which we base those decisions.

Another way for Executives to bridge the gap between their ambitions and customer needs is to gain first-hand experience of a customer’s interaction with the product or service. They also need  exposure to the experience of the organisation’s people trying to deliver that service or product. This is the principle of ‘Go and See’. In order to change your mental model of a situation, you must experience it. The best way to achieve that is walking a mile in your customers’ and team members’ shoes. In so doing, leaders are able to reshape preconceived notions and respond appropriately to what customers/team members want, and how they want those needs fulfilled.

Meeting leading Organisations

Finally, I had the honour of being invited to Standard Bank to give a keynote to the senior leaders in the organisation. Standard Bank Group is the largest banking group in Africa by assets and earnings. Its 49,000 employees operate in 20 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, serving over 15 million customers.

Lean Enterprise Johannesburg

Standard Bank are now two years into their journey and recognise the critical role that technology plays in meeting the ever-evolving needs of their customers, Standard Bank partnered with ThoughtWorks to develop their new Internet banking website, an essential customer-facing platform for their business.
It was fantastic to see such strong executive support and team engagement in transforming a bank at scale. They are constantly challenging themselves to move forward and think about the next thing. Embodying the mantra of lean enterprise, THINK BIG, start now, learn fast.


To visit Africa was a privilege. The openness, transparency and willingness to learn was a refreshing reminder as to why I love meeting people and organisations as we all go on this journey together.

Upon reflection after all the airports, flights, hotel rooms, good, bad and indifferent coffees there is one thing that continues to hold true. Lean Enterprise has helped me build my own global community for which I am very grateful, and my only wish to continue to grow it and make it stronger.

300 days | 28 events | 9 countries | 6 continents | 1 global community


Thank you Australia, Brasil, Canada, China, Germany, Ireland, South Africa, the United Kingdom and United States for inviting me to your fantastic countries.

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