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Sunday, July 7, 2019

Swacchh Bharat - cleaning up corruption

The tremendous stress that the new government is laying on nation building is bound to give results but it would take its time. Nation building demands the toil of generations and definitely does not come cheap. The future, perhaps for the first time indeed looks bright.

One of the fundamental issues that needs to be addressed is the deep-rooted corruption, corruption that has engulfed the entire grassroots to the extent that there is hardly any interaction of the common man with the tantra that is not laced with graft. The common man yes, for the powerful are beyond its grip and the wealthy find a way around it.

Yet not many complain as long as the work is done, for unfortunately corruption has started getting regarded as an inescapable part of the cutting-edge processes.

In my over four decades of working within the system, I never witnessed a serious and concerted drive by my superiors to eradicate this evil from the various organizations. Unfortunate still was the reluctance to even bring this issue on the table and the effort merely remained confined to a review of the working of the assorted vigilance setups without appreciating that it is more of a cultural issue.

The real ease of doing business would indeed come, even for the common man when he does his business with the government at various levels, only when the cutting-edge functions are not laced with graft. For us bureaucrats especially, remaining confined to our comfort zone is the most ideal scenario. Why accept the ills of the system and why try to set it right when our life passes on peacefully handling issues that sound more impressive.

The irony remains that those of us who can change the system remain unaffected by it, and therefore have no stake in the change.

The solution lies in first acceptance of the problem, placing it bang on the table and then going about process reforms with a zeal previously unheard of. Yes, the solution lies in simplification of the various processes that define governance, empowerment of the executive to enable fixing direct responsibility and accountability and having a system of swift redressal of the issues as well as that of exemplary punishment to the delinquent.

The complexity of the tantra is the issue. The plethora of thumb impressions that every decision necessitates ensure that no single bloke can ever be held directly responsible. Such a system only emboldens the inspectors, the keepers of the cutting-edge who demand compensation from the client for every act for which they are getting a salary from the government too.

It is the same for everyone, except the high and the mighty. Whether one is an individual or a corporate, every single interaction with the Sarkar, especially at the cutting-edge level is generally a deal where nothing happens without a consideration.

We have to pause and think. Is it not necessary to go in for reforms – cultural, procedural and structural so that working becomes simpler, graft reduces and delivery multiplies?

Whenever I interact with my friends who are from the corporate world or who are plain simple citizens of the nation, the harsh reality comes out tumbling fast. And my friends on this side of the fence who indulge in governance generally feign ignorance or express helplessness.

We cannot have the mission areas – ease of governance and make in India, compromised by officials embroiled in corruption at the cutting-edge level. Cleansing the muck of decades is definitely not an easy task, yet a task that has to be handled.

One hopes and prays that the massive expectations are not belied.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Dil Mein India, Aasmaan Mein Air India

This article was published in Time of India op-ed on 6/6/2019

Air India, a brand that often fuels emotions and also nationalism is easily one of the most well-known global brands. And why not, with a network of over seventy domestic and forty international destinations, it is an airline with a reach.

Except for the last decade and a half or so, Air India was always regarded as a great airline. This national carrier of India was well known for its service to passengers, with the Maharajah logo being an apt icon. Sadly of late, its sheen faded because of the down slide the airline witnessed since the turn of the millenium, in its finances, market share and services.

Founded by the legendary JRD in 1932, Air India had for long been India's showcase to the world and with marginal hiccups, it continued to perform reasonably well till such time it and its sister domestic airline continued to fly separately. The beginning of the decline also timed itself with the governmental interference that this commercial enterprise in a highly competitive sector started facing in right earnest.

This has been the sad story of the public sector in India. Regularly cursed for inadequacy in performance, the public sector at large has invariably been the victim of the same very people who curse it in the first place. Excessive interference, a plethora of rules, processes & oversight and a pervasive environment of fear has dampened initiative and acumen for taking risks - the most crucial traits required for running businesses successfully.

The merger, pushed through without fully appreciating the chemistry of mergers and apparently to satiate the english word -  synergy, coupled with other decisions forced down the airline, initiated its downhill slide. The ban on recruitment ensured the absence of fresh blood and ideas and the stress on tendering procedures coupled with the over indulgence of vigilance set-ups that rarely differentiate between malafide and procedural mistakes, hastened the free fall.

For businesses, one loss making year is enough of a wake-up call to initiate corrective measures, yet at the national carrier, the debt was allowed to pile up over the years. A turn-around plan that subsequently emerged was by no stretch of imagination as such for it conveniently avoided addressing issues relating to leadership, human resource, processes, delegation and organizational culture, and merely remained confined to equity injection to meet debt service requirements. The plan only helped a sinking ship to remain afloat, not ride on the waves.

Despite being more of a railroader than an aviator, it hurts to witness the descent of an airline that was an iconic one till almost the turn of the millennium. An organization that acquired one of the finest art collections and that in the yesteryears really cared for its men an aspect easily visible in the adequacy of built and acquired residential quarters, had to be a great one.

Yet along the way the organization did stray and piled up a mountain of debt. Simultaneously, neither its growth nor administrative processes kept pace with the changing requirements of the twenty first century. That despite the serious issues it faced and continues to face, the airline still retains its inner strengths - the tremendous reach and operational and technical excellence, indeed says a lot.

It is a harsh reality that governmental systems are ill suited for running commercial organizations in its fold, more so an airline business that is very high on competition, regulation and technology yet has very thin margins that too have a propensity to vanish with the slightest flutter in fuel prices.

For many of us Indians, the sight of an Air India aircraft stimulates a feeling of national pride. At airports beyond our shores it gives the feel that home is right there. The only airline with India in its name shall always evoke this feeling regardless of its ownership.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Transforming Organizations

This article was published in Hindustan Times op-ed on 4/6/2019

India is a nation on the move, a rapid and visible move as witnessed in the last five years and expected with greater vigour in the next five. The “WILL” is visible loud and clear and that is what really matters.

Transformation is the mantra and a complete transformation of organizations is the only way forward. Transformation and a complete one at that, generally stimulates delivery to an extent that cannot be imagined otherwise. Unfortunately the general mind-set believes more in flogging the system for enhancing delivery, that does work but only for marginal improvements, not for a quantum growth.

Rejection of the status quo is the hallmark of true leadership at political, bureaucratic and corporate levels. A true leader looks at sustainable change that only transformation, or “organizational reforms” can bring and for that to begin, a tremendous sense of urgency needs to be first established. There is a need to establish a firm belief that business as usual cannot continue and complacency will kill slowly but surely. Fortunately for the nation, the existing dispensation strongly believes in the necessity of change and is driving change like never before.

The desire to excel, propelled by sheer will power is the most potent of all potions. A combination of absolute trust and a common shared goal propels organizations in the right direction.

Indian Railways recently went through a very powerful dose of transformation when it attempted organizational reforms, cultural, procedural and structural on a scale, never attempted earlier. Driven by the Board and piloted by a very able set of officers that constituted the transformation cell, railways witnessed phenomenal changes in a small period of over a year, changes that transcended zonal and divisional boundaries and impacted the ground and ground level workers. It was indeed an attempt to simplify the complex bureaucracy, do away with frills, simplify deliverance and impart a sense of pride in the entire workforce and in the process, be able to do things that earlier could never be imagined.

An organization is invariably defined by its culture. While the beginning is generally clean, complacency, materialism, ego, lack of concern for the human resource and the prevailing social environment, all tend to influence the organizational culture in due course of time. The organizational culture directly influences the morale and the pride that men have in the organization they work for. A no frills culture that has a catalytic impact on deliverance is to be aspired for, but is rarely achieved.

It has to be repeatedly said. In my over four decades of association with the government machinery, I never had the occasion to attend even a single official meeting in which the welfare of men and the need for an ethical conduct was discussed. Therefore while mundane issues are given cognizance, the cultural issues were invariably lost sight of. Perhaps it is the grounding most of us get during service including at the service training institutions that makes us leave these vital issues in favour of the easier mundane ones. One of my first orders therefore was to ban the well-entrenched practice of giving bouquets, gifts and protocol across the organization.

Unfortunately most of the top managements shy away from a ground connect for they do not realize the sheer difference it can make to deliverance. A seamless connect across various tiers where one tier is never shy of approaching the upper echelons for issues official or personal does much to enhance confidence levels, self-esteem  as well as pride in the organization. Management by walking around, anytime, anywhere and everywhere and in the process interacting with the men cutting across the various tiers is the simplest way of initiating cultural changes.

I have always been surprised by the mistrust that organizations nurture, nurtured by the men who want to be trusted yet do not trust others and in the process create positions that generally do not have adequate power or authority to deliver what the organization expects them to. The best organizations are those that maintain a perfect balance between authority and accountability, yet it is so very rare to find them. The railway transformation cell headed by Sudhir Kumar therefore initiated a major effort to empower all field units with an unprecedented delegation of authority – something that could not be done in last seventy years was achieved in just one and this reflected in the vastly improved pace of infrastructure creation, upgradation and maintenance.

New courses on leadership, capacity building and emotional intelligence along with unique initiatives like project Saksham for training the entire staff and mission Satyanishtha aimed at inculcating ethical conduct also started making a difference on the massive railway system.

There needs to be pressure to perform, not for not making mistakes for the only way not to make  mistakes is by shunning work altogether. We need to create an environment where people are fearless and do not have any qualms about standing up or doing what is right. A fearful employee devoid of courage can never be an asset for the organization he works for. We should encourage top guys to freely mingle at all levels as that really helps in creating such an environment.  

We also need to encourage small successes and appreciate our employees whenever they succeed, even if it is a routine activity done well. What needs to percolate is the thought that good work needs to be actively and continuously encouraged. Regular felicitation of even the lowest rung railway employees in the Chairman’s chamber, for their exemplary work while on duty made an impact. More than the felicitation, it was the dignified manner in which these employees were treated right through their visit to Delhi that made a lasting impact on their lives as well as on the organization.

Reforming the processes, processes related to decision making and contractual is paramount. It needs to be clear to all in the organization that deliverance is paramount not the process, but unfortunately the understanding is generally the reverse. Simplification of processes and having absolute trust in the men, unless proven otherwise holds the key.

That structures are not sacrosanct and need to adapt to the culture and the processes and not the other way around is also a very important learning.

Organizational reforms is the way forward and Railways has shown the way.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Public Sector blues

The fundamental problem with the public sector has always been the half-hearted nature of its formation and handling. The intent initially was fine as it was surmised that a business venture that the undertakings are, should be governed by the companies act and function as freely as the private companies with only the ownership being vested in the Government. Arms-length distance was obviously envisaged between the owner and the company as is generally the case even in the private sector, but unfortunately it has been followed more in breach.

What really emerged was far removed from what was envisaged. The original thought of allowing the public sector total autonomy that would lead to a performance comparable to the  private sector never really happened.  

Selection of the chief executive, a diligent exercise that continues almost a year for top of the line corporates is given the short shrift while selecting the head honcho for the public sector undertakings. And even the brief exercise undertaken for undertakings focuses only on sectoral knowledge rather than the leadership capabilities of the guy under consideration. The private sector that on the other hand is finicky while undergoing the process of selection, subsequently gives a very long rope for the selected guy to perform quite unlike the scenario on the other side where the head honcho lives under a shadow of mistrust from day one.

Over a period of time, many of the public sector enterprises emulated the complexity of the decision making processes and contractual mechanisms that already engulfed the sarkar, thereby seriously hampering their efficacy. Presence of over-zealous vigilance wings that regarded every act of deviation from the book as an act of malafide, also killed initiative and risk taking, something so vital for a commercial venture. This affected the working of a large number of public sector organizations that started piling up losses.

The fear of taking a wrong decision, wrong in hindsight of-course and then paying the price has engulfed the managements of the public sector, with attendant consequences. Many realized that the best way to avoid making mistakes was to avoid decision making.

The prevalent tendering system is indeed the bane of the nation. A system in which the process for purchase of bulk commodities is same as that for highly technical or creative items can never meet the requirements of emerging organizations. Often great ideas are espoused, but the enthusiasm wanes when discussions start around the tendering process to be followed for executing the great idea. Obviously there is a general tendency to play safe and that does not give the desired results.  

Another issue of concern plaguing the undertakings is the often misplaced notion of over-staffing, a notion that continues unabated despite the organization reaching a stage where rampant under-staffing starts affecting performance. Ad-hoc ban on recruitments, that once imposed are never revoked, invariably result in a drought of fresh ideas and also an aged workforce, a scenario conducive for a slow demise of the organization. 

The over-zealous participation of various agencies that remain removed from realities as well as delivery yet regard every move of others with suspicion and wait for an opportunity to pounce, has failed to reduce corruption or improve efficiency but has succeeded in curbing initiatives. How can a scenario in which individuals who have no stake in delivery sit on judgement even on routine decisions taken by people who are responsible and also accountable for delivery, be considered satisfactory. The safest path that emerges  is to merely indulge in the routine and not take bold initiatives and that is what has actually happened cutting across the public sector, something amply visible in the number of organizations that have become a drain on the nation.

Process constraints and an environment based on fear and mistrust have ensured failure of many undertakings. Either we proactively handle the obvious constraints and create an enabling environment or else disinvestment is the only practical remedy.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

A simple complicated world

A simple complicated world

A world where we fail to realize that love is only about giving.

A world where it is indeed rare to witness a scenario in which one is not constrained by the prevailing environment, constrained in rising to his full potential.

How wrong we are in generally assuming that people need to be controlled, how wrong we are in considering almost everyone as inadequate unless proven otherwise. Is it not downright foolish to almost always don the head masters role?

We do not trust others, yet expect others to trust us. It is a vicious circle that keeps all of us entangled in a web of mutual mudslinging and blame throwing.

That even the most complex of issues in the most complicated of organizations have utterly simple solutions is something that we invariably lose sight of while we tend to veer towards finding complicated solutions to even the simplest of problems.

Our definitions of honesty are often warped for while we regard financial honesty as honesty, professional dishonesty ie not being true to our job, the organization and the nation is normally never regarded as being dishonest.

Remaining busy while in a government job is unfortunately considered synonymous with delivery, even appreciated by the unconcerned members of the society

The qualities of the heart are far superior to those of the head, yet is it not strange how often we believe otherwise?  

We live in a simple world made complicated by us.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Defining Integrity

The general lack of integrity is still a cause for concern, despite the focus on probity that we have fortunately witnessed in recent times. 

I am reminded of an incident more than a decade ago when a senior state level politician filed a motivated complaint, accusing me of dishonesty and seeking an enquiry to probe charges. A direct confrontation that followed set the matters right with doubts being raised on the politicos capability to even understand what honesty or integrity meant. The matter ended with a confession of the reasons behind the complaint followed by profuse apologies, apologies that the politico continued with for years.

And that set me thinking – why is it so easy to accuse someone of dishonesty, more so within the governmental setups, a scenario that is witnessed in the form of a plethora of vigilance cases, enquiries and charge sheets that engulf the environment. It is sad that even a deviation from a laid down norm or a mistake is regarded as malafide, a scenario suited to throttle initiatives.

It is not only about honesty. Honesty is truthfulness, integrity goes much further. While honesty is about acceptance of the truth in its absolute form always, integrity is about doing the right thing under all circumstances. Integrity therefore is also about an impeccable conduct and behavior for that is the right demeanor to possess.

Yet the blatant absence of it and why? During my over four decades of serving with the government, the majority of the officials I interacted with comprised of those who would do the right thing only if there was no pressure whatsoever from influential quarters to do otherwise. The silent minority who would do no wrong despite pressures also comprised of two categories, one who did no wrong and delivered, while the bulk did no wrong and also had no concern for delivery. The majority and the bulk of the minority, both lacked integrity.

The system unfortunately continues to regard everyone as devoid of honesty or integrity despite occasional signs of being proven otherwise. To that extent the legacy left by the british continues uninterrupted. 

The widely prevalent belief that regards check-posts as an appropriate deterrent for dishonest practices is also misplaced. The more the number of check-posts and those who police, the greater the ingenuity of those on the wrong side is my firm belief. If mere policing could reduce crime and corruption, the job was simply confined to increasing the number of policemen. Our rank inability to provide a corruption free society, a society where every interaction of the common man with the sarkari tantra is not laced with graft, despite the over powering presence of the watchdogs says it all. 

And why not, the society and the system generally lay no emphasis on the need for honesty and integrity. Never in my career spanning over four decades have I witnessed a forum called by my superior where issues related to honesty and integrity were discussed.

Trust deficit is a mild word, lack of trust is most appropriate. Yes a system that does not trust its own constituents can only propagate lack of integrity and that is what has happened. Viewing every action with suspicion has become the norm.

Inculcating integrity in the human resource has to be the numero uno priority for organizations as well as the society and putting this issue bang on the table would start the ball rolling.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Tremendous potential of the HR

Human Resource is the key to revival, yet very rarely the same is understood or appreciated. And we search for solutions in strategies, high sounding words and solutions and often in power point presentations.

Slick power point presentations have caused the nation and its organizations much harm. Presentations conceptualized and made by young MBA’s while remaining fairly distant from ground realities, yet presented powerfully under a false shroud of conviction have the ability to take many for a ride. The boss, partaking of the presentation remains under an illusion of a time well spent, even though it is totally wasted.

The problem of an illusory ground connect especially at apex levels is for real. Unfortunately our society, already highly compartmentalized, differentiates between the lower and the upper echelons on an almost 24/7 basis, thereby preventing the much needed interaction that makes one aware of what is really happening.

The solutions touted therefore remain theoretical and fail to work. What remains constant are post mortems of why and where we went wrong.  Jet is one such example. With a debt that is apparently manageable if the organization is well run, one fails to understand why the organization went down under, if the management was capable and committed enough.

And so have been many other organizations, the national carrier being one of them. How can an organization be allowed to remain in reds continuously for over a decade since merger, a scenario that has resulted in the current debt trap, without real remedial measures being initiated the moment the dip became apparent.

I have witnessed the same everywhere, be it Madhya Pradesh tourism, ITDC, Railways or the National Carrier, all faced the ignominy that emerges out of inadequate top management. In all organizations, invariably the blame for shortcomings was laid at the altar of the field soldiers. On the other hand I have also witnessed though rarely, organizations rising from the ashes whenever a humane leadership played on the front foot.

We all know how we would like to be handled by those above us in the organizational hierarchy, yet we fail to apply the same when we handle those below us in the hierarchy. We are rough with those down below and extra polite with those above us, regardless of the merit of the argument being made and the subject being discussed.

The ability to stand up for what is right and to be able to correct what is wrong is amiss, almost always, everywhere. This quality is what defines an individual and all other traits are borne out of this singular attribute only. Everything else is secondary.

Let us all focus on the human resource, alleviate their grievances and suffering and get the best out of them. It is indeed almost impossible to comprehend me as to how much more we can get out of a charged motivated individual.

We need to believe in the tremendous potential of the human resource.