Prof Karl van der Merwe

Associate Professor
Department of Industrial Engineering
041 504 3431
North Campus, New Engineering Building, Centre for Business Engineering

Biography / Background

Karl van der Merwe has been a practicing industrial engineer since 1989 who, after a fifteen-year stint in the automotive sector, moved to an academic environment to pursue a career in teaching, research and consulting. Karl holds a doctorate in operations management, which was granted by the NMMU, based on research completed in the field of Lean and Six Sigma operations. He is currently overseeing several continuous-improvement research projects in collaboration with industry partners. Karl is also an enthusiastic (but not very talented) cyclist, currently residing in Port Elizabeth/Gqeberha, South Africa.


DTech in Operations Management, MTech in Industrial Engineering, BTech in Operations Management, National Higher Diploma in Industrial Engineering.

Teaching Interests

I moved from industry to an academic environment at the behest of my former lecturer who had become the Head of the Department for Industrial Engineering at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University almost twenty years ago now. At the time I had envisaged staying in academia for no more than two years – quite unexpectedly, I realised that I enjoy teaching and derive a lot of personal satisfaction from developing the minds of young engineers.
To date the subject or modules that I have taught include:

  • Work Study/Organisational Effectiveness
  • Operations Research
  • Production Engineering
  • MRP and ERP Systems
  • Statistics
  • Production Management
  • Industrial Leadership
  • System Dynamics (Simulation)
  • Project Management
  • Manufacturing Engineering
  • Lean
  • Quality Management

In addition to the subjects listed above I have also developed a number of Short Learning Programmes that include:

  • Lean Practitioner
  • Six Sigma (Green and Black Belt)
  • Project Management for Engineers
  • Value Stream Mapping
  • FMEA
  • Statistics for Quality

The above-mentioned courses were taught at undergraduate and graduate levels for industrial engineers, operations managers and business school MBA candidates.

Teaching philosophy

My philosophy on teaching is grounded in the belief that the role of the teacher is to guide students and allow them to discover solutions to problems following a systematic and logical process. To achieve this goal, I follow lean principles and develop my courses in such a way that students are engaged and challenged. One-way communication does not lead to learning. I believe that challenging students in a respectful manner clearly communicates my belief that they are capable of successfully completing the task at hand.
Over the years I have developed a number of practical exercises for industrial engineers. These endeavours have culminated in the development of a simulated working environment (sometimes called a learning factory) where students can experience a manufacturing environment and work out solutions to typical problems.
The industrial engineering programmes offered in South Africa include a significant practical component where students are placed in various manufacturing organisations in order to gain practical experience in real factories. I have co-ordinated and controlled these experiential learning semesters for engineers over the last ten years or so, and in this role I have come to realise the positive nature of such training. Seeing students develop from slightly timid junior trainees into confident young engineers is a rewarding experience. At the time of writing, I have mentored over 500 students.

Although most lecturers do not actively seek teaching awards, it is certainly pleasant to receive one or two from time to time! Awards that stand out for me include:

  • Teacher of the year – for the School of Engineering, NMMU, 2007.
  • Teacher of the year award (runner-up) – South African Institute of Industrial Engineering – national awards.

Finally, I believe that my most important accolades come from past students who thank me for my contribution to their personal growth and development as they continue to achieve their career goals and climb various corporate ladders!


My research interests are centred around the lean philosophy and associated tools. To date I have focused on the pursuit and attainment of lean organisational culture in various industries ranging from automotive to aeronautical. I am a firm believer that lean success hinges upon the ability to meaningfully engage employees and convert them to lean thinkers. Attaining this lofty goal is influenced by many things, but leadership actions and behaviours remain the single most important factor.

Value stream and process mapping have featured prominently in my research as I remain convinced that they are extremely powerful tools for lean practitioners.

Representative Publications


Van der Merwe, K.R., Coetzee, R. & van Dyk, L. (2019) “Towards addressing respect for people during lean implementation”. International Journal of Lean Six Sigma, 10(3), 830-854.

Van der Merwe, K.R. (2017) “A longitudinal study of the efficacy of lean learning experienced through a simulated working environment (SWE).” International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, accepted and awaiting publishing.

Van der Merwe, K.R. (2016) “Leadership behaviours and lean culture attainment in automotive component manufacturers.” Journal for New Generation Sciences, 14(3), 259-278.

Coetzee, R., van der Merwe, K.R. & van Dyk, L. (2016) “Lean implementation strategies: how are the Toyota way principles addressed?” South African Journal of Industrial Engineering, 27(3) Special Edition, 79-91.

Davies, E. & Van der Merwe, K.R. (2016) “Methodology to produce a water and energy stream map (WESM) in the South African manufacturing industry.” South African Journal of Industrial Engineering, 27(3) Special Edition, 219-228.

Van der Merwe, K.R., & Davies, E. (2015) “Development of a framework for a lean based water and energy efficiency assessment tool.” Journal of Engineering, Project and Production Management, 5(2), 98-106.

Van der Merwe, K.R., Pieterse, J.J. & Lourens, A.S. (2014) “The development of a theoretical lean culture causal framework to support the effective implementation of lean in automotive component manufacturers.” South African Journal of Industrial Engineering, 25(1), 131-144.

Conference presentations/papers

Presenter. “Value stream mapping applied to a typical three year higher education qualification.” 27th SA Industrial Engineering Conference, 27th-29th October 2016, Stonehenge, South Africa.

Presenter.” Is your OEE system uncovering or hiding waste?” Lean Africa Summit, October 2016, Cape Town South Africa.

Panel member. “Academic lean issues.” Lean Africa Summit, October 2016, Cape Town South Africa.

Presenter. “Enhancing the lean learning experience in higher education using a simulated working environment (SWE).” Third international conference on lean six sigma for higher education, 8th and 9th June 2015, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Presenter. “The development of a lean culture diagnostic tool.” Fifth international conference on engineering, project, and production management, 26th to 28th November 2014, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Co-presenter. “Factors that influence the throughput of engineering students.” To be presented at the 30th SAIIE Conference in Port Elizabeth, 30th Sep to 2nd October 2019.

Works in progress

Author, Van der Merwe, K.R. “Leadership behaviours and lean culture attainment in automotive component manufacturers.” Submitted, undergoing peer review.

Author, Van der Merwe, K.R. “Aligning industrial engineering experiential learning industry expectations and student skills.” Writing phase.

Author, Van der Merwe, K.R. “A framework for selecting an improvement strategy.” Research and writing.

Post-graduate supervision, research and related projects

Supervisor: Value stream mapping applied to energy efficiency. Doctoral candidate in Operations Management (NMMU). Degree awarded April 2017.

Co-supervisor: Development of the Respect for People model for lean implementation in the South African context. PhD Industrial Engineering at NWU. Degree awarded 2019

Co-supervisor: Measuring the prevailing lean culture in an aviation organisation. Masters candidate (North West University), graduated.

Supervisor: Factors that influence throughput of engineering students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, MBA candidate (NMMU), graduated.

Supervisor: Key changes in ISO 9001:2015 and the impact it has on organisational change in South African organisations, MBA candidate (NMMU), graduated.

Supervisor: The impact of the LRA amendments 2015 – section 198 on labour flexibility in the Nelson Mandela Bay automotive component manufacturing industry, MBA candidate (NMMU), graduated.

Supervisor: What constitutes a World Class Operator in an Eastern Cape automotive manufacturing environment? (NMMU), graduated.

Project: The link between OEM interaction and quality systems.

Co-author: Implementing lean in South African industry (2010), Trilean Publishing, Port Elizabeth.

Book Author: Project Management: A practical guide (2016), CIRG Publishing, Port Elizabeth.

Book Author: FMEA (2017), CIRG Publishing, Port Elizabeth.

Book Author: Value Stream Mapping (2017), CIRG Publishing, Port Elizabeth.

Book Author: Lean Operations (2018), CIRG Publishing, Port Elizabeth.

Book Author: Lean Six Sigma (ongoing)

Guest lecturer

University of Mississippi, Lean Culture, 2012

Guest Speaker

Keynote address at the VWSA Problem Solving awards, 2017

Keynote address and judge at the AIDC Eastern Cape Kaizen Awards, 2017

Keynote address and judge at the AIDC Eastern Cape Kaizen Awards, 2019

Keynote address and judge at the Umicore Lean Team Awards, 2018

In addition to being registered with ECSA I am also a member of the Industrial Engineering Accreditation panel that visits institutions that offer the Industrial Engineering. To date, I have completed fourteen accreditation visits either as a team member or team leader (six).


South African Institute of Industrial Engineering (SAIIE): Associate member #1981

SAPICS: Member #4776

American Society of Quality (ASQ): #6530370

SA Society of Quality

Six Sigma Black Belt

Please find below a short list of selected noteworthy achievements:

Motherwell Urban Renewal Project (MURP, 2006) – a presidential project aimed at bringing about sustainable change in the Motherwell area of Port Elizabeth. I was appointed as a project manager (on loan from the university) to ensure that the project deadlines and budgets were adhered to.

Automotive Industry Development Centre (AIDC, 2007-2009) Project Management Programme – this was a project aimed at developing project management skills within the automotive component supplier base in South Africa. A partnership was formed between the AIDC and the university in order to identify and train key personnel from this industry sector in the field of project management. I acted as lead facilitator for all the project management training provided.

NMMU Business School affiliation – I have lectured the Quality Management module for the NMMU MBA programme for the last three years and I currently act as a lead facilitator for a number of leadership and management development programmes. I also sit on the Project Management forum that oversees the development of the project management programmes for the Business School.

International work (2012) conducted at Mississippi University with the aim of assisting them with the development of a manufacturing and operations learning centre sponsored by Toyota USA.

Current project to develop a joint taught masters and to increase international exposure of the department.

Western Cape Furniture Initiative (WCFI) – developed and facilitated a 6 day performance improvement programme based on lean thinking.

Extensive development of performance improvement type short learning programmes for local business including but not limited to:

Project Management for Manufacturing (5-day programme)

Lean Practitioner (8-day programme)

Six Sigma (Green and Black Belt, 12-day programmes)

Strategic plan facilitation for organisations in the automotive sector (ongoing) – I have acted as facilitator for senior management meetings where strategy is discussed and agreed upon.

Journal reviewer (ongoing) – to date I have acted as a reviewer (blind peer review) for twelve journal article submissions to the South African Journal of Industrial Engineering and various international journals.

Organisational culture and performance management (ongoing) – assisted VWSA and Umicore training and implementation of problem solving teams (PST programmes aimed at creating a culture of performance).

Recent activities with regard to internal service within the university include participation in the institutional Quality Committee and Ethics Review Committee.

Individual and departmental awards include:

  • Lecturer of the Year, 2007
  • NMMU Department of the Year, 2013
  • NMMU Engagement Excellence Team Award, 2014
  • School of Engineering, Emerging Researcher, 2017

Facilitator on the Continental Tyres international performance improvement programme.

Co-developer of the NMMU learning factory (2011 to present) – this was a project aimed at designing, developing and procuring a learning factory in the department. The project has been completed and we have been invited to join the Association of Learning Factories based in Germany (Reutlingen Business School, EBS).

Development of research orientation workshops (ongoing) – for prospective Masters and Doctorate students.

Leader of the continuous improvement research group (ongoing) – a group of researchers, mainly consisting of junior colleagues, aimed at growing research outputs in the field of improved organisational performance.