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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.