Planet Lean: The Official online magazine of the Lean Global Network
How humility transformed a car dealership in Botswana

How humility transformed a car dealership in Botswana

Sharon Visser
January 5, 2017

CASE STUDY – The story of how a humble leader, who recognizes the importance and contribution of each individual to the company’s success, is making a car dealership in Botswana a fantastic example of lean transformation.

Words: Sharon Visser, Principal, Halfway Toyota Ngami

When Halfway Toyota acquired Ngami in 2013, our people were scared and angry: the car dealership had been run by the same owners for 25 years and all of a sudden massive change was on the horizon.

I had seen takeovers before, and I had seen people fighting against them and wanting to just hang on to their old ways. And it never worked. Halfway wanted us to introduce lean thinking, and I was determined we’d give our very best to try and change.

At first, there was mistrust and militancy: people felt let down and didn’t understand the new system we were trying to introduce. The context around us certainly didn’t help. Life is Botswana is hard: many people in our district live in poverty and those who don’t (because they work) care for up to eight family members – an important role in Batswana society and a part of our culture of respect. People often live in one-room houses without power or water, and many of them have sick family members to look after (our country is experiencing one of the most severe HIV/Aids epidemics in the world, with the third highest HIV prevalence rate among adults in the world).

The odds seemed to be stacked against us, and it took a lot of work, pain and tears to overcome the obstacles we were facing. Yet, it was in the acknowledging that life is hard that we found the key to our transformation.


wash station at Ngami Halfway

When Terry O’Donoghue (Halfway’s COO and a former vice-president at Toyota South Africa) and Dave Brunt (the CEO of the Lean Enterprise Academy in the United Kingdom) first came to Maun to help us initiate the dealership’s transformation, Ngami was very hard to control – I often compare it to a dragon, which generated a lot of gold but didn’t release it willingly. The previous management was convinced that the only way to tame the beast was being assertive and saying “No.”

We decided that we would try a different approach, one that recognized the difficulty people were experiencing – at work and at home. An approach that would make their job easier to understand and carry out. Work doesn’t have to be complicated. We want our people to be able to do it on bad days just as easily as on good ones, even when the retroviral drugs they are on are taking their toll, or when they have been up all night looking after a sick family member. They need their job, and they need to do it right no matter how they are feeling.

The real transformation at Ngami started when we began to respect that fact that our people were struggling. Why would we want to make anybody’s work and life harder than they already are?

Desperate to get our people on board, we decided to have individual conversations with each and every one of them – they are valuable to us as 86 individuals, after all, not as one “workforce.” We found that their complaints, too, were individual. It took weeks to explain to them what we wanted to do, but listening to their worries and problems – one by one – created trust between us and eventually convinced everyoneto give lean a try.


The time we took to lay the foundation for the change made a big difference to the extent of the resistance to the implementation. We knew from the start that Ngami was going to be different, and so it has proved to be. As the books tell us, implementing lean is situational. Our culture on the edge of the Kalahari is quite unique and introducing lean tools and principles called for a unique approach, based on simplicity and fun.

teaching lean thinking at Ngami

Time, for instance, seems to have a different meaning in Africa, so we had to work extra hard to explain to our people that a speedy and efficient service is something our customers value. To show them the importance of time in our workshop planning, we used an abacus, assigning 10 minutes to white beads and 60 minutes to red ones. We made it as visual as we could.

The bottleneck we were experiencing in the wash bay became visible to everybody when we started to use little car models on two shelves with pieces of paper illustrating half-hour time slots. At the same time, we started to map the movement of vehicle across the dealership using a Vehicle Control Board using magnetic chips.

Once they grasped the fundamental mechanism of the process, we introduced standard work to build in quality into our services – another important way in which we provide value to our customers. Figurines of men made in red, orange and yellow Play-Doh (which we nicknamed Halfie Red, Halfie Orange and Halfie Yellow) and car models were used to break down the work in our Wash Bay and to assign specific tasks to each of the people there. (You can see an example of this in the comic strip below.)

It’s all about communicating in a way that people can understand: using toys to explain purpose, movement and directions made all the difference for people who are not familiar with diagrams and schematics. It also unleashed their creativity and ability to solve problems. Once people are allowed and enabled to participate, the energy and engagement explode. Staff members explaining thinking and changes to other staff members took on a totally different dimension using the toys.

We do very little classroom training at Ngami, and focus instead on learning at the gemba. What people see on a PowerPoint slideshow, they forget; what they learn using stickle bricks will stay with them forever. Talk to people in the right way, and their desire to learn will prove almost overwhelming.

Soon after standard work, we introduced the concept of kaizen, aware of the fact that it can only be done after watching and fully understanding the work. Over time, Dave shot dozens of hours of footage (it is so easy with phones these days): videos allow us to see together, and to learn together and to act together. This is when real learning happens.Watching a car being washed, for example, highlights problems in the process, and once we know what the problem is we can start thinking about potential countermeasures.

continuous improvement at Ngami

Improvement is not rocket-science, and kaizen can be as simple (and cheap) as plastic gutters being used for draining oil filters - see picture on the left. Do you want another example? We used to pack wheel bearings by hand, but after we started using lean our staff designed our own tool (using plumbing supplies) to pack them, which resulted in a 20-minute saving in the time required to complete the process. The critical lesson we learned here is that kaizen must be done by the people who do the work: when they are involved, they thrive; when they aren’t, they simply nod and carry on doing things their way.

Later on, we taught them about flow, introducing important changes to the way we work. With the batch logic we employed for so long, it used to take us 31 minutes on average to wash a vehicle, and the quality of the service was poor. Today, we wash cars in a single-lane around the wash station, completing a wash every 16 minutes, with consistent quality. We learned that simple automation takes precious time off the process: that’s when we built a drive-through wet-and-soap station (using inexpensive components bought at a hardware store), which saves us five minutes for each vehicle we wash.

Another staggering improvement came after we turned our one-stage express service into a two-stage express service. The former had given us a 122% improvement in efficiency, while moving to the latter using a flow-based approach led us to a 280% efficiency improvement, with the addition of only one staff member.

Smart communication to explain lean thinking

There is more. To deal with the unpredictable work that so often interrupted flow in our service and repair processes, we created a Pre-Diagnostic Bay, where vehicles are inspected before the formal process begins. Vehicles leave the bay with a checklist indicating all the problems detected, which allows us to secure quotes, parts and approvals ahead of time. All the stagnation that previously occurred on the lifts has been eliminated and the technicians can now do the work from start to finish without any interruption or delay – we experienced a 20% efficiency improvement over the entire workshop. We don’t know of any other dealer who has tried this, but it has had a dramatic effect on the productivity of our operation.

Our experiments with flow brought huge benefits to Ngami, but we hit something of a roadblock when we reached the 30-vehicles per day milestone. The reason? Administration couldn’t keep up with the increased volumeof vehicles.

So we started mapping our people’s skills level in the office and, for each vehicle, assigning tasks to the right folks, based on their knowledge and the amount of time needed to complete each task. Following that, we were able to put the admin work into a single-lane flow (I can’t stress the importance of 5S enough) – which had an immediate impact. We are now able to process up to 50 cars in a day without an all fall down.

Our traditional way of working meant that we could expect, at best, no more than four or five jobs per day from a lift. With the introduction of lean and flow we are able to produce up to five times that number from a single lift. The impact on our financial performance has also been remarkable: between 2013 and 2015, our average monthly turnover grew by 57%, our overage monthly profit by 111%, and our freed-up cash by 161%.

Implementing flow at Ngami car dealership


Despite having started its lean journey three years after most of the other Halfway dealerships (most of them are located in South Africa), Ngami was able to catch up and even overtake many of them in less than two years. We are very proud of what we have accomplished.

Servicing cars in Botswana with lean

Ngami’s success would not be possible without the active participation of our people, which in turn we couldn’t achieve without showing respect. For me as a leader, this seemed like a natural way of approaching change, probably because I struggle myself to cope with vast quantities of information. I am not a particularly fast thinker, and I, too, need to sort and organize information. It occurred to me early on… how could I expect my people to understand the work if I didn’t?

I have learned that lean is often about turning our weaknesses into strengths, but in order to do that we must first be humble enough to recognize we all have our limits. Sadly, this is very difficult in the traditional business world (in Botswana and elsewhere), which awards leaders for showing how clever they are rather than for making the work as easy as possible for their people to do.

We are nothing without our people. Make caring for them your focus, and lean will honor and reward you. At Ngami, we see examples of the meaningful impact of providing employment all the time: a newly hired worker recently passed her probation period and became a permanent employee, which meant that she could afford to bring her child home to live with her as she previously had to live with her grandmother, who lives 500 km away.And this, in my mind, is the sort of thing that actually matters.


Sharon Visser photograph
Sharon Visser is Principal of Halfway Toyota Ngami, in Botswana

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