Problem solving with Bob and Wow in Africa

I got introduced to Bob and Wow at Philips by my former ex-Danaher colleagues. Since the introduction, I have met with Bob and Wow pretty often, especially when encountering business problems at work. 

So let’s meet Bob, best of the best in what he/she does.  And let’s not forget Wow, worst of the worst in what he/ she does. 

They called an assembly of the whole school to introduce me.
They called an assembly of the whole school to introduce me. Hence me blushing…

How do you meet with Bob and Wow?

Whenever you encounter a problem, which you always firstly quantify, you should identify your Bobs and Wows. Let me give you a real example from my current volunteering experience in rural Uganda. We noticed that many planted trees in schools didn’t survive. We believe we can improve the survival ratio and are therefore ready to do some problem solving. 

Let’s firstly quantify our problem. Since 2017 Integrated Villages has planted 260 trees at four schools, yet only 55 of them remain to grow at this moment in time. This means that 205 trees didn’t survive. We didn’t notice any trend during the period after they were planted. 

In our case “Hill View school” is Bob with the highest amount of remaining trees whereas “Bigando”, “St. Clement” and “Kasaana Muslim” schools are Wows, with only a few remaining trees in their school area. 

After a short talk with Integrated Villages representatives, I knew I need to go gemba (i.e. the actual place) as soon as possible. This time, since it is just four schools, I decided to visit all of them. If you have a bigger sample size, you probably need to select a reasonable number of representatives from each side.

This tree was planted in “Kasana Muslim” school two years ago
This tree was planted in “Kasana Muslim” school two years ago

My insights from meeting Wows

My European eyes observed that all three schools were quite dirty and not well taken care of. I have learnt that none of them were private schools. “Kasaana Muslim” is owned by the Ugandan government whereas “Bigando” and “St. Clement” are owned by the Catholic church. 

After a thorough search I could find a few remaining trees around the premises at a few of the schools. However, even though I am far from a tree expert, I could easily notice that nobody puts any effort in taking care of the trees. In “Bigando” school I even observed an empty whole right in front of the director’s room. They told me they were eaten by cows during a school holiday period. 

After my walk in the school area where I solely observed the environment, I decided to talk to some of the staff members. They all barely (or at least pretended) didn’t remember the tree planting initiative. Some tried to direct me to other staff members, so at each school it took me quite some time to find someone who could tell me something about the planted trees.

The most interesting talk was with a director of “Bigando” school, who started to complain or ask to bring new trees to her school. Interestingly, it’s the school where 0 trees survived, even though 100 were planted. After a couple of indirect questions, the director blamed it on the cows. They come to this area, stating it was impossible to protect the trees. How? Her answer with a smile was – next time we will be more responsible. Sure, next time if that chance comes.

What shocked me even more in that school was to see a teacher working in her classroom whilst also taking care of her three months old baby. The school has a low funding, so teachers’ salaries are low. There is no way you can afford to leave your baby at home with a sitter. Imagine the quality of education if the teacher needs to teach and take care of her newly born all at the same time. Imagine on top of that taking care of planted trees too? 

All the talks with school staff were more or less the same. We don’t have time, we don’t get paid enough, I didn’t work at that time, I don’t know what to do.. 

What did I learn meeting Bob?

Bob (Hill View School) doesn’t look fancy either, but it is relatively clean and organized. You immediately feel the difference, especially when walking back from “Kasaana Muslim” school which are located right in front of each other. Trees are growing, they are pretty tall already and you can even see some fruits starting to grow. You just smell and sense that love and care is given to them. Kids are enjoying the shade it offers during their break, whereas during the right season they can even sample some of its delicious fruits. 

The director is difficult to catch, as she is always in the field looking how everything is going. She is a charismatic lady and while talking to her, you realize she knows her “business”. The school is not rich either, although it’s privately owned. However, since the director is so committed to make her school the best in the area, she has even invested in a wired fence. This has helped them to protect the trees from cows. 

With charismatic but strict school director from “Hill View”. 
With the charismatic yet strict school director from “Hill View School”.

Hill View School has also selected one responsible person to take care of the trees. It is the director’s brother, Tony, who came across as proud and confident of his task. He engages pupils into the tree care process too. They all know how to water them, cut branches and dig the grass around. Hopefully for the school he will remain there for the unforeseeable future.

I could also note that Tony has an entrepreneurial mindset and didn’t miss a chance to ask me if I am interested to plant more trees. I said “Maybe, let’s see”. I firstly need to finalize my gemba insights from the meetings with both Bob and Wow.

What are my suggested countermeasures?

It seems that the key root cause of this problem is staff commitment to take care of the planted trees. You could easily argue that we should go deeper in 5WHY analysis (i.e. asking Why until you find an actionable root cause). However, in this case you will come to the answer that we don’t have commitment due to low salaries. But let’s be honest, what can we change about it as a small local NGO? Nothing, therefore we focus only on what WE can influence.

Unfortunately many trees are not there anymore, so we cannot do anything about it now. For the ones still present, in the short term we will engage more with the staff from Wow schools and educate them on the importance of the trees. We will also assign one responsible person in each school and regularly follow up on the progress. I am not sure whether it will dramatically improve but it’s always worth to try. 

In the future, I suggest to be more strict on which schools we select. My criteria would be: a private school which is owned by a director and who believes in creating a pleasant school environment. Additionally, there should be only one responsible staff member who is engaging school children on how to take care of the trees.

I don’t know whether my suggested countermeasures will ensure 100% of planted trees survive. Most likely not. However in LEAN mindset, it’s important to do small improvements/ kaizens each time. After another tree planting effort, we might discover new problems, so we need to start engaging into problem solving again by potentially using other tools. The most important is that we don’t forget to reflect and are not afraid to make mistakes as long as we learn from them. 

In Uganda there is a rule that if you cut one tree, you need to plant three trees to replace it. I decided to plant five, each for my family member and myself. They will be planted at Bob’s place. I hope I will be back there and who knows.. Maybe I will enjoy avocado or other fruit chosen by my family members. 

If you are interested to plant a tree in Ugandan schools with low vegetation, please let me know. They cost only €1 and it would be really appreciated by the entrepreneurial Bob, who still has lots of space for additional trees. 

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