Jul 3, 2008

India - Madness in the Method

Over the last year, a number of incidents have made me ponder over why our way of doing things in India is often so poor on processes and delivery of outcome. I recently went through the nightmarish process of getting home repairs organised, then the worse experience of relocating home. I am sure my life span was drastically reduced with the nail-biting suspense of wondering when things would get completed and what the final result would look like.
One big stress-inducer is what a friend (who recently relocated from the US) calls the Indian propensity for “false deadlines”. She pointed out that almost never is she given an accurate estimate of when things will get completed. Typically there is a confident delivery schedule airily announced; then, as it became clear that the job is unlikely to get completed on time, she prods the executor - (“are you sure it will be done by such-and-such time, is there any hold-up, tell me now so I can plan”, so on and so forth) – only to get no definite reply until the proclaimed deadline had come and gone. True enough, in my case the tile-laying estimated at eight days took four weeks – in comparison, the packing and moving, planned for four days only overshot this by a mere 50 per cent.
The other stress comes from just watching how things are being botched up and spotting a zillion things that could make things go faster, or at least deliver better results. Wouldn’t it be more productive and less wasteful to check that all the tiles are from the same batch and to sort out the damaged ones before laying them? But hey, that could actually result in a good finish, and get the job done on time - what fun would that be? Instead, the master layer crouched in position, told his rookie assistant to bring the tile; he then cemented it in place, spent a few minute hammering it, then leaned back and tut-tutted that it was either chipped or from some wrong batch, yanked it out and began the process once more.
With the movers it was even worse – here, you see, is the illusion of a seamless process. A supervisor roams around, clip file in hand. Uniformed workers assemble an arsenal of impressive material – imported paper, cartons and such. And yes, it is true that many things did work well – one senior packer was a delight to watch, wrapping delicates in intricate paper turbans. A little into the experience, however, the cracks in the process became evident. First, the false deadline created the inevitable stress when it became evident that the job was to take much longer – in the ensuing hurry, they found that they were short on people and materials – and soon tempers were frayed as well. Things got badly packed and subsequently damaged. The flustered supervisor helpfully numbered the boxes wrong, creating huge confusion at both ends of despatch and delivery. Instead of asking for an itemised insurance list, we were asked to give a box-by-box estimate – naturally, this was after the boxes were packed and no one had a clue about the contents other than an omnibus term of “curious items”. (No, that is not a typo – and in a better mood I would smile at his unwitting appellation for my collection of bits and bobs).
On arrival, we found that the team consisted of a group of outsourced labour. Unfortunately, no one had thought of taking them through the rudiments of the process. So one young fellow who was not part of the core team would pick up a carton (marked fragile, I would note in agitation) and then stagger to the supervisor. They would then look for the box number – and each box had many numbers scrawled on it – since no one had thought of cancelling the other numbers from previous moves of the recycled cartons. After some debate and discussion, the supervisor would then flip slowly through his chart and announce the box number and vague description of contents and then look to me to ask where it should go. Since my instructions for each box, carefully given at despatch, had been lost in the wind, I would have to quickly decide on a temporary resting place.
All this while, the rookie would be standing, holding a heavy carton in his trembling hands, which he would release with a juddering thud. As a result, while I had been promised a break-free move, I am still sighing sadly over some damaged treasures, and instead of settling in smoothly into the new home, the mess created by the badly itemised list created chaos for many days. “Will you recommend us?” asks the feedback form – and as I ponder over that question I find I am unable to assert that any other moving company would have done a much better job.
Are careful planning and faultless execution alien to the Indian way of doing things? Definitely, there are master craftsmen all over India who demonstrate excellence in outcomes. Yet, when it comes to team work and scaled up operations, things seem to fall apart: poor estimation of the quantum of work, of time taken, of the labour requirement, all lead to service experiences which are inconsistent and unsatisfying. Some of this is cultural – a reluctance to say “No, this cannot be done”, or “This is a problem”, for fear of repercussions. “Why did you not give me a more accurate estimate?” I often ask them, insisting that I would rather wait a little longer for the delivery and have it arrive on time, rather than be given false deadlines which lead to alibis and excuses when the inevitable hiccup intervenes. Another problem is the inability to look ahead and do some basic contingency planning: what if the lift doesn’t work? What if the shipment doesn’t arrive? What if the driveway is not long enough to take the truck?
And of course, the people issue – how do you ensure that a large team is trained in the most effective way of execution?
India is growing at warp speed, we all know that. The transition to a service economy is a welcome one. Yet, we need to look closer at our way of doing things, emphasising productivity, efficiency and excellence in outcomes, if we don’t want to create a habit of slipshod execution. The label “Made in India” is no longer a pejorative for our manufacturing economy. It would be heartening to see that maturity in our service sectors as well.

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