Learnings from Africa

It was the spring of 1995 and my firm (XONITEK) was one of the top implementers of Macola Software’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.  We were the very top when it came to implementing in a manufacturing environment.  As such, I was invited to Macola’s summit to share my views on the future direction of the company and its offerings as well as my experiences and thoughts on best practices for implementation and support services.

It was there that I met Nick Leonard, Director of Sales for ADM Systems (Pty) Ltd and the Macola partner for South Africa and beyond (eventually becoming Macola South Africa).  Nick has boundless energy, a quick wit, and was laughing most of the time; a laughter that was quite contagious.  He was also a great storyteller and his tales of growing-up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), being a rally driver, going bundu-bashing (off-road in the bush), and other adventures kept me completely fascinated (and laughing).  We got along incredibly and he is still a good friend of mine to this day.

Towards the end of the summit, Nick asked if I would like to go to Pretoria to train his team on how to position, sell, and implement Macola in a manufacturing environment.  Loving travel and the prospect of adventure, of course I jumped at the opportunity.  And in October of 1995, I paid my first of what was to become many visits to South and Southern Africa.

Keeping in mind that the United States had placed sanctions on South Africa in 1986 because of the Apartheid Government and only repealed the last vestiges in 1993, my visit in 1995 was very early in the transformation of the country and there was much that was unsettled and in transition.  But the thought of having real and exciting adventures in an exotic and wild place such as Africa (a yearning gained probably from reading too much Hemingway as a child) meant I just had to go.

But the flight…  Ooof…

I took the only direct flight at the time; South African Airways from JFK airport in New York City to Jan Smuts airport in Johannesburg (Jo’berg).  The flight from JFK to Jo’berg was 15 hours non-stop in the air (the return flight stopped for refueling in the Cape Verde Islands).  Add to that the four (4) hour drive to the airport and the three (3) hours at JFK and another two (2) hours travel once landed in Jo’berg, the entire door-to-door trip was 24 hours. 

The only good thing I can say about that trip is that every other trip I will ever take for the rest of my life will be easy.  It is a skill I have used a couple of times; going from New York to Scotland once for dinner and another time going from Frankfurt to New York once for dinner.

Unpredictability of Africa

October in Jo’berg is early Spring.  The foliage is just waking up.  And the Jacaranda trees are in full bloom turning the roads into cheerful and bright purple tunnels.

The format of my engagement changed by the time I arrived.  Instead of just training Nick and his team, they had invited several of their clients to also to learn about manufacturing management and the Macola ERP system.  The additions did not really matter much to me.  I was there.  And it gave me an opportunity to meet more people and listen to more stories.

However, it did offer a glimpse into the South African mindset; plans are just notions, almost dreams.  They might be tethered to a reality, but they are not reality, and they are probably not actually tethered either.  It made me recall a quote from Dwight Eisenhower; “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.”  But in Africa, planning is often nothing also.

While I didn’t get a chance to go bundu-bashing on this first trip, I did get to see a bit of the countryside, stop at some road-side curio shops to stock-up on native art and artifacts, eat some real tasty beasts, drink some very nice wines, and best of all meet some really great people and have a lot of laughs.

Which brings me to a thought…

I believe people need to face – in fact, have a desire to face – problems in their lives to challenge them and help them to grow and develop.  These struggles can take many forms; physical challenges, emotional obstacles, and intellectual tests.  Although these problems are often uncomfortable and even painful, they offer valuable opportunities for learning, growth, and resilience. 

Having and facing problems also provides a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives.  And overcoming them can give us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that can be hard to find elsewhere. As for me, I tend to get very restless when things are going too smoothly.  I like a good fight.

Indeed, life in the States and in Europe is rather predictable, even positively boring.  So much so that I believe people feel compelled to create problems, even crises, just to feel alive.  As an example, take a moment to contemplate some of the events of the last few years; what problems were actual problems, and which were created out of boredom?

Maybe more folks should go to Africa instead.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

My next chance to go to South Africa was the following February.  Living in Upstate New York, winters can be pretty brutal.  Oftentimes, Celsius and Fahrenheit can be the same, at -40F/C.  And it is not that I mind the cold much.  But there comes a time when it wears me down and I just feel tired and rather lazy (not my normal energetic self).  For me, that time is February.  So, the thought of going to South Africa in the middle of their summer was quite attractive.

When I returned from the trip it was almost March and, although not vanquished, winter was losing its icy grip.  I was able to see the crocuses punching through the snow.  The sun was getting higher in the sky and the days were getting longer.  I felt reinvigorated. 

Each February until February in 2010, I would travel to Southern Africa for ten (10) days or so.  I would make sure to have some engagement that served as the anchor-purpose for the trip.  Then I would pad it with some adventure. 

Sometimes, the engagement itself would be the adventure like when we drove overland up the East Coast from Cape Town, through Knysna, to Port Elizabeth, to Durban through the Drakensburg Mountains to Bloemfontein, ending in Jo’berg.  Or the time we went to Mozambique and ended at an Elvis-themed ranch in the middle of nowhere called Graceland.  Each trip would add considerably to my portfolio of stories and I would return home ready to get back into action.

Although I was never formally diagnosed and it is not overwhelmingly severe, I believe I am afflicted with a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).  It is a type of depression that is related to changes in the seasons, most often associated with winter and explains my malaise and lack of energy.  I even take 5,000du per day of Vitamin D3 to combat it (with reasonable results).

But for however challenging winters are in Upstate New York, the winters in Frankfurt Germany are uniquely insufferable.  The sun rises at 0830h and sets at 1630h.  Even then, it is hidden behind a ceiling of clouds most of the time.  The temperature hovers around 38F (2C) and the air is damp.  Basically, it’s dark, cold, damp, grey, and miserable; and this, I believe, explains much about the sense of humor and disposition that many (most?) Germans have.

So, imagine my delight when a company based in Jo’berg called me this past December (2022) and wanted to hire me for an engagement in late January.  I was doing the Snoopy-dance.

The flight from Frankfurt, at 10 hours, was a lot easier than the 15 hours from JFK.  And getting off the plane and walking in the sun and warmth of Jo’berg was quite welcome indeed.


What does any of this have to do with Operational Excellence?

The first is about change management and especially transformational change.

My first visit to South Africa was a wonderful adventure and I certainly fell in love with every little bit of it and the people on that first trip, and eventually a love of all Southern Africa.  And having been away for almost a decade also made me recognize the place, its people, and the challenges faced, have changed.

During those first few trips, it was a time of political and social transformation (especially with regards to race relations) and things were progressing rather quickly.  In this last trip, what I saw and what I felt was the political and social climate had settled significantly, especially with regards to race relations.  Everyone was mingling and socializing with everyone else and I did not see the racial divides that I did on earlier visits.  In all fairness, it has been 30 years, an entire generation has grown-up post-Apartheid.  All for the better.

However, what I did experience was a real degradation in the infrastructure, most apparent in the rolling brownouts (they call it load-shedding).  As a result, almost every business and even many homes have back-up generators that run on diesel and automatically activate when the power goes off.  The worst part is the disruptions the load-shedding causes in the cities because, when the power goes out, so do the traffic lights; chaos ensues.

There were other noticeable signs of asset degradation.  For instance, South African Airways is a shell of its former self and is now largely a regional carrier without service to either the United States or Europe except through partner airlines (they are a member of the Star Alliance partnership).  And then there is this report from the University of Witwatersrand in Jo’berg that sounds the alarm that “South Africa’s entire infrastructure is on the verge of total collapse”; none of which were the case on my earlier trips.

The struggle and the challenges have evolved from cultural to structural.  How a country with the vast mineral riches that South Africa has can be in such dire condition escapes me; and should be fixable.

So, the lesson related to Operational Excellence addresses “Systems Thinking”.

During the reign of the Apartheid government, the country was structurally sound but socially bankrupt.  But the post-Apartheid government emphasized social ambitions and neglected the structural; not just starving the structural, but actively taking from the structural.

The lesson found in Newton’s third law applies; for every action found in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In this case, “nature” is cash.  When you give to one, you take from another.  The key is to keep the flows in balance to achieve harmony.

The second is about perspective.

Living in the States or in Europe, we often get irritated (even angry) when something small goes wrong.  Maybe you are in a hurry and the light turned red.  Maybe you are at McDonalds and the ice-cream machine isn’t working.  Maybe you are able to see someone’s garbage can from the road and feel compelled to call the HOA.  Maybe you are German and just have to find anything about which to complain.

In Southern Africa, when such things happen they just shrug it off and say, “TIA”, a non-Disney version of “hakuna matata” (which is actually Swahili for “no trouble”).

So, when I visit Southern Africa, I find cause to celebrate more than complain and the reason is simple; the expectation when I am in Southern Africa is that it won’t work or be right.  And when anything does work or go right, it is cause for celebration.

“Look!  The electricity is on!  Yay!”

Or “Look!  The internet is working!  Yay!”

This is not to say I have changed dramatically and that I expect or would be satisfied with a lesser outcome.  That is not it at all.  What it does mean is, when something isn’t satisfactory, I won’t get all bothered by it and become emotional (at least for a spell).  Instead, I will just do what they do in Southern Africa which is to do what they can, with what they got, from where they are.

And remember, TIA.

About the Author

Joseph Paris

Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy design and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations.  His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.

He is a sought-after speaker and lecturer and his book, “State of Readiness” has been endorsed by senior leaders at some of the most respected companies in the world.

Click here to learn more about Joseph Paris or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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