Operations management skills needed as South Africa prepares to bare arms in the fight against COVID-19

While the Government and healthcare sector are currently focused on securing a steady supply of COVID-19 vaccines, supply chain and operations managers should be planning the processes that must be put in place to ensure a successful mass vaccine rollout when the time comes for millions of South Africans to bare arms. The experience and expertise of these professionals will be crucial in the massive challenge of vaccinating 40 million South Africans by the end of 2021 in order to achieve herd immunity.

This was the message from experts speaking at a recent webinar hosted by SAPICS, southern Africa’s Professional Body for Supply Chain Management.

This event reflects SAPICS’s commitment to guiding and supporting African supply chain professionals through the latest issues facing the profession. The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be its greatest endeavour ever. Achieving efficient and effective operations will require continuous improvement of the supply chains up to and including the vaccine delivery sites.

The webinar, which was entitled “A Call to Arms – the Vaccine Challenge”, was facilitated by Norman Faull, founder and chairman at Lean Institute Africa and Emeritus Professor of Operations Management at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business. For nearly 20 years, Faull, his students, colleagues and collaborators have worked to improve public sector healthcare service delivery in South Africa.

“Our time to bare arms will come when SA has procured supplies. Securing supply is where the (acrimonious) discourse is currently focused. Let’s use the time until a steady supply is available to get ready to bare arms across the nation,” he urged delegates. Faull contends that now is the time for all supply chain continuous improvement practitioners in South Africa – whether they follow the Lean, Six Sigma or total quality management (TQM) methods – to sign up for “national service” and find out what they can do to help in the vaccine challenge.


In the SAPICS webinar, he cited an article in the Daily Mail which reported that a mass vaccination centre in the United Kingdom was preparing to do four COVID-19 vaccinations a minute in six queues operating in parallel. Faull explained that this translates into 90 seconds per jab. The article prompted him to apply Lean calculations to South Africa’s upcoming vaccine challenge, he said. “The current rate being achieved in South Africa for COVID-19 vaccinations is 10 to 15 minutes per person. At this rate, with a buffer of 35%, South Africa will need 10 000 sites giving vaccinations eight hours a day, every day, in order to vaccinate 40 million people by December 2021.

“Every delivery point will need to be set up. Staff will need to be identified and trained. Transport must be arranged for the public. The process will need to be stablised and improved after the initial set-up. Now is the time for operations management skills; now is the time to call up the Lean troops in the battle against COVID-19,” Faull stated.

Originally developed by Toyota as an assembly-line manufacturing methodology, the goal of Lean thinking is described as “to get the right things to the right place at the right time, the first time, while minimising waste and being open to change”. Today, Lean tools are being used to streamline procedures in a diverse range of business environments, including healthcare. With Lean thinking, organisations can do more with less, respond more quickly to customer needs, create more rewarding jobs for employees and reduce their impact on the environment. The results of Lean thinking can now be seen in every sector and across the globe.

An update on South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccine challenges – including a panel discussion with senior public health executives – is on the agenda at the upcoming SAPICS Conference. This annual event –now in its 43rd year – is Africa’s leading knowledge sharing and networking event for the supply chain profession. The 2021 SAPICS Conference will be a virtual event from 24 to 26 August 2021.

Visit https://conference.sapics.org/ for more information on the 2021 SAPICS Conference or to register.