Kgotla, a foundation for lean thinking
FEATURE – Is it possible to build our lean transformation efforts on pre-existing cultural aspects we find in our societies? According to the author, it is… and it works really well.
Words: Sharon Visser, CEO, Lean Academy Botswana
Google “Botswana” and you will quickly get to learn loads about this country. You’ll find out, for example, that Botswana is one of the world’s largest diamond producers, that it has a vast and beautiful Delta teaming with wildlife, an even larger desert that is just as beautiful – the Kalahari – and the highest elephant population in Africa. You will also learn that before independence from the United Kingdom, Botswana was called Bechuanaland.
One of the things you will read about is that the country has always been a peaceful democracy. You won’t, however, be told why that is. I think that the assumption is that we are just like any other nation in Africa and that we just got lucky to not have a dictator voted in to run the country.
Yes, we have been lucky, but we are not reliant upon luck alone. I believe there is a very specific reason why Botswana has turned in one of the continent’s success stories.
In every village in Botswana, there is meeting place called the Kgotla. It is where the people can meet with the chiefs or leaders and where everybody is equal. In the Kgotla, people have a right to speak whatever their age or education. Any issue can be raised there, even against the actions of the chief – as long as it is done respectfully. It is said in Botswana that “ntwa kgolo ke ya molomo” – “The highest form of war is dialogue”.
In the past, people gathered in the Kgotla to decide what to plant and when, where to burn the grass, what animals to hunt. Every decision was made by consensus or by voting, always thinking of the impact of that decision on the environment and, therefore, the people.
The Kgotla was also a court where the community elders decided how punishment was carried out, whenever the rules were transgressed. It was also the space where a portion of the harvest was stored so that it could be kept for times of famine. Decisions to use resources from this storehouse was agreed by the whole community.
The Kgotla and the cultural aspects it promotes have greatly contributed to making Botswana the peaceful country it is: everyone has a voice here, and it is not because they are rich and powerful but because they are a valued member of a community.
Naturally, the Kgotla was a place where leaders learned to debate and understand problems. Botswana has a history of outstanding statesmen who are strong orators and who were able to make wise decisions on things like diamonds or the HIV epidemic. These orators are trained from an early age by sitting in the Kgotla and listening, so that they can learn to build their case with the elders and the rest of the tribe.
If you read the book (or watch the movie) A United Kingdom, you will learn how the Kgotla was used to decide that Sir Seretse Khama could still be the chief of the Bamangwato people, even though he had done the unthinkable and married a white woman from England. This was a very controversial act that caused great discontent with Bechuanaland’s very powerful neighbor, apartheid South Africa. It was a marriage that was rejected by the colonial power of the time and the regent of Bechuanaland.
The story goes on to tell how the people using the Kgotla system supported their new chief's decision, who in turn honored their faith in him by negotiating independence from the UK and securing the diamond rights of the country at the same time. The Kgotla system then supported him to become the first president of Botswana. Sir Seretse Khama died a beloved man, respected by all and mourned by his people.
After reading all this, I am sure you are wondering what it has to do with lean. Well, I believe that the Kgotla culture provides Botswana with a strong foundation to implement lean thinking: stability, without which nothing can happen. It also encompasses other “lean fundamentals”, like respect for people and problem solving based on data and facts.
Traditionally, people understood that they had to take quality information with them before approaching the Kgolta, which meant they gathered data at what we call the “gemba”.
Let me give you an example. Hunters, whose task was to procure meat for the village, were used to traveling vast areas on foot. As they did, they gathered invaluable information that could be used by their community. They noted the level of flood waters and what the wind, trees and wildlife told them about weather patterns and the future likelihood of drought. In the same way, fishermen spoke of the breeding times of the fish and when and where to fish.
Women, who were typically tasked with growing food, then took this weather information into account when deciding what to plant in each season. This huge amount of information allowed people to develop an understanding of the work to be done, which in turn impacted their decisions and allowed them to survive and prosper in a harsh environment.
This way of life taught them vital life skills.
From an article written by Jeff Ramsey, a Botswana historian, writes:
“It is one of the sad ironies of history that great examples of human productivity have often occurred during the course of wars. This was certainly true of the Second World War, which constitutes an extreme example of humankind’s productive as well as destructive capacity. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that one finds incredible examples of productivity among the Batswana APC. As with any military formation the routine tasks of some of the troops were, in this respect, mundane but vital.
Many Batswana, for example, manned petrol depots during the British 8th Army’s advance up the Italian peninsula. In a 12-hour period one 90-man unit was reported to have washed, filled, stacked and loaded 295,000 litres of petrol. Another 70-man unit did 215,000, while a 120-man group prided itself on a consistent output of 40,000 an hour.
Other Batswana companies took pride in their ability to assemble prefabricated Bailey Bridges, designed with the capacity to withstand the weight of entire armoured columns, in a day. Apparently, some of these ‘Bechuana bridges’ were at least until quite recently still in service, as are fortifications built by Batswana in Lebanon.
In 1943 the Bakwena of 1969 Company won special praise for their speedy construction of what was then the world’s biggest ever prefabricated bridge over the Sangro River (a feat that was featured on the cover of Life Magazine).
During the winter of 1944, in the face of bitter cold and often intense German shelling, the same Company joined several other Batswana units in building and maintaining a road across the Apennines Mountains from Castel del Rio to Castel San Pietro. The resulting ‘La Strada di Bechuana’ (‘Batswana road’) appeared on Italian roadmaps.”
These days, with modernization, the Kgotla is not used in the same way it used to, but it is still deeply ingrained in the culture of the people. Every Batswana – no matter their political orientation – respects the Kgotla and its power in decision making.
It was with this thought in mind that, at Halfway Toyota Ngami, we built elements of the country’s culture into our management approach as a way to apply the core lean ideas of respecting people and gathering information at the workplace. My Batswana team took to this easily and, as an Africa-born traditional manager with an English background, I was probably the one who struggled the most. I was used to giving instructions and the idea of consulting others was new to me. However, with the patience of our team with my struggle and the time it took to consult with everyone, we eventually managed to find a way to use visuals to start meaningful conversations about the work that were based on the data gathered at the gemba.
Over time, the team became better and better at information gathering as they reverted back to their inborn tendency to look at the facts. The more this happened, the more confident they became. Inevitably, this had a positive impact on the outcomes for our customers.
It is sad to see that with the Internet and social media, the Kgotla is slowly losing its decision-making power in Botswana (the nameless and faceless will never have the same impact on our society as face-to-face discussion). It is sad to see that a metal bridge, like those Jeff Ramsey tells us about, now takes much longer for us to build.
I hope that the Batswana reading this will think about their present condition and never forget where they come from. Thanks to the Kgotla system, respect for people and informed decision-making come natural to them.
For everyone else outside of Botswana, I hope this will have been useful and that it can inspire you to look for the best in your country’s (or company’s) existing culture to see how it lines up with lean principles. There is no reason we shouldn’t leverage the good principles we already have to become better leaders and transform the world around us.