LST Industries, leading tissue manufacturer in all of Southern Africa! Hmm not quite. Maybe someday. At the moment however, LST Industries is just a small enterprise running out of the same lot as the owner’s (Mrs Sibanda) other business, Norwich Insurance Brokers, and supplies tissues to just the small nearby area of Lusaka. Obviously it’s a long way to go from there to become even Lusaka’s main tissue manufacturer, but if the Zambian’s I have worked and lived alongside have taught me anything, it’s the ability to dream big.
Our first day was a lot to take in, and maybe somewhat overwhelming. Chapa, my Zambian counterpart, and I introduced ourselves to Mrs Sibanda, and talked to her about what we hoped to achieve, and what she wanted out of us. Although I didn’t really think about it as such at the time, this was our first taste of being consultants, and the first stage of our “Client Relationship”, which we would go on to learn about in our weekly CMI courses.
There were some difficulties or complications, it must be said – although she knew what we were there for, she also thought we would help on the factory floor, actually producing the tissues. Ah, this will be the managing expectations part of consultancy that had been mentioned. We politely conveyed that while we would of course be happy to help out in all areas of the business, she should understand that our role shouldn’t be as extra workers for a few months. After all, the long term benefit of that would be minimal, and when we departed, the business would go back to being the same as before. She seemed to understand, and agree, although she did proceed to provide us with steel toe-capped boots and coats for when we were working on the floor… one step at a time, I suppose. In fact that’s another thing I have learnt – progress is going to take a lot longer than you think, so celebrate the little victories.
In our first couple of weeks, we spent our time talking to the staff and trying to get started on the work, looking for ways we could help improve the company. We had lots of ideas; we saw how their record keeping could be made better and also their sales procedure. I spent the first week looking at a lot of financial data, which, I cannot lie, took me a long time to interpret. After some time though, although it felt like we had gathered loads of information, we still needed to do something with it, and make it presentable. It was here a part of the CMI course sprung to mind, about actually doing stuff with your data – it’s no use having a lot of data if it doesn’t mean anything, and I think this was a mistake we made in our first few weeks. Slightly unsure of how to have the best positive impact, we used somewhat of a scattergun approach, hoping to find something that would stick. We thought about it some more, and I used our observations of production to work produce a report on how effective the machines were and, happily, found that we could show were certain inefficiencies in the production process. From now on we would try to be more focused on our goals, and not get overwhelmed in trying to do too much.
Another thing we failed to do early on was organise meetings with our boss. We were in a new company; I personally was in an entirely new continent, so perhaps we were a little too timid. However, we have learnt, through our own experience and also as part of the course, how important it is to have a strong relationship with your boss/client, in order to ensure we are actually helping her in a way that she agrees with. Initially for example, I came up with a way that we could improve production, by possibly changing the specifications of the final product. It seemed perfect to me, the product itself would be barely altered, and they could increase production by about 5-10% with barely any effort. I got a little carried away with this, and ran through quite a lot of calculations about how much this could save. However, it was not until later that I presented this idea to Mrs Sibanda. Although she was impressed, she said it was basically not possible due to restrictions on the machine and customer requirements. This was obviously disappointing, but if I had mentioned this to her earlier I could have spent my time on something more useful.
From then on we strived to meet more frequently with Mrs Sibanda, in order to ensure a productive time here. As it was, she was much more concerned about worker idleness and safety than the ins and outs of production. With this knowledge, we were able to produce a schedule and set of rules to ensure the workers were always busy, and we got some basic safety signs made to ensure the customers and the workers were safer. This took little time, but Mrs Sibanda was very pleased with the results; we had been focussed on ways we could have hopefully a bigger impact, and these signs and schedules felt small, but like I said, one step at a time.
As it is, a 10 week consultancy is obviously a very short amount of time to significantly improve a business such as ours, and to be frank, I’m not sure if LST will be the Hungry Lion* of tissue manufacturing by the time we leave. However learning about consultancy through both direct experience and as part of the CMI, I see now how we can help the company, even by doing seemingly small things, it is all part of giving the company foundations on which to grow in the future.
*The McDonalds of Zambia fast food, they are everywhere. I’m actually sat in one now, as I type this.”