Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Book Review - The Difference: When Good Enough Isnt Enough

About The AuthorSubir Chowdhury is chairman and CEO of ASI Consulting Group, LLC, a global leader on strategic initiatives, quality consulting, and training… His client list includes global Fortune 100 corporations and industrial leaders such as American Axle, Berger Health Systems, Bosch, Caterpillar, Daewoo, Delphi, Fiat-Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Hyundai Motor Company, ITT Industries, Xerox, and more.

Subir is recognized as one of the “50 Most Influential Management Thinkers in the World” by Thinkers 50 of London, UK. Hailed by the New York Times as a “leading quality expert” and by BusinessWeek as “The Quality Prophet,” Subir is the author of fifteen books

N. R. Narayan Murthy says “Thoughtfully written, and a compelling read” about this book – in what can only be the understatement of the century! When a book both triggers off a series of thoughts in your mind and contrives to identify your weak points, all the while tugging at your core values without overtly saying them, those words seem to be a classic understatement. To a book reviewer, such a book also poses challenges in terms of how do I review it, giving full justice to it at the same time? When every page is vital, it poses significant challenges in terms of reviewing as well as summarizing!

Ignore the blurb on the back of the book. I mean that – quite seriously. This is a book that is about how you can create a great organization, to be short and sweet. It is also a book that is exceptionally hard to actually implement – that is also true; but then – the best things in life aren’t easy… and if it is easy, it very probably isn’t worth doing in the first place. If you are looking for a classic theory, or a step by step methodology, don’t go in for it. But if you are looking for answers to questions that you will find in this review, and many others like these, this is the book for you!

This book takes a look at Quality and Performance in a entire new light; it actually breaks new ground, and attempts to create a clear unbroken link between basic values of life and corporate performance; it also attempts to link how the smallest of indicators, usually ignored by all, can be indicators of systemic malaise. And this it does not through theory – but real life examples. And, without going into excruciating detail: that is, the format is succinct and yet power-packed. And, it also goes on to try and establish a format one can follow… has it succeeded is what I attempt to answer in the analysis…

The book delivers a superb and hard-hitting learning in sticking to the fundamentals of your core trade; of sticking to basic human values; of how the smallest of errors – like a toothpick on the floor – can be indicators of big trouble. It teaches a lesson in STAR – being Straightforward, Thoughtful, Accountable and have Resolve. It also teaches a lesson in quality – of what constitutes quality, what can be its determinants, and how to go about it. But it doesn’t give a ready lesson – you have to apply it, translate it to your reality, your industry, your function and your level, as I look at in the analysis part.

Let me start with an example of my own, a real one. I once had my team send a few cases to the service center. One of these was a logistics issue – delivery damages; and the other was a customer issue. Repeated follow-ups from my side elicited no response. I had taken all requisite approvals; my boss was on my side on this – and yet, the result was zero. One of the reasons was – in both cases, the physical handset or the part had not been sent from one place to the other. These two places were close to each other. In absolute frustration, I myself picked up both and got them to the two correct locations.

I could go on, but let me stop here. Examine this above operation- why couldn’t anyone in the right team have taken the initiative to close the matter? Especially since that company had a reputation for bad service, and was now keen on improving? The answer, as the book makes clear in the first few pages itself – is ownership towards quality. The people were just doing what they perceived to be their tasks. I was called a fool for doing a service task, and that too a low level one, despite being a Regional Manager. My attempt to lead by example was a spectacular failure; while I solved the issue -the core problem remained. My immediate sales were benefited, but each service issue was a similar fight.

This is something I have encountered in my entire career-  it isn’t my job; it is low-level for me; why should I; just ignore. In a modern organization, this extends to most functions; the small “adjustments” made in various places, special approvals taken without due thought; short term tactics used without a care for the impact on the long term – on internal business culture, brand identity and perception; organizational culture; performance culture; compromise on your fundamentals etc. And, truth be told, a person who tries to correct these is called out as a misfit. Any number of brands in my knowledge have collapsed due to these above factors.

And therein lies the most significant challenge to this book; the hard fact that, most times, employees tend to pay a heavy price for being exactly what the book proposes to do. I know that hurts, but that is a true fact, as I myself have known it first-hand. Take the example above : how could I not make an impact? The reason was simple – the rest of the staff were getting orders that were the opposite of, or fundamentally different from, or with much lower priority than, what was being told me. This wasn’t deliberate; the thought was that this strategy would suffice. And that is the first problem in the book – it should have gone deeper, into functional and role aspects.

Of the STAR acronym, I  myself have practiced at least the first two fully, and the third to a very great degree. Yes – I learnt the fourth – Resolve, which I need to strengthen; thus it is a fact that the book gives deep learnings to employees at every level. But, this to be fully successful needs two interventions – the first is to translate this to your industry reality; and your level; and modulate a response to your exact situation. Trust me – the book will equip you if you go into the subject with full commitment.

But this strategy also requires two other items; as someone who has been consciously trying his level best to do all of the book almost – look at para above – this is what I can glean from my experience, combined with the brilliance of the author. He saw things I couldn’t; he could put it in a framework. To walk this path also requires “STARCH” = a C and an H. That is Courage & Clarity of thought, and Health. The reason is that once you try to change the small basics, you meet hard resistance – which will require courage and clarity to properly identify &  solve; and will increase your stress levels sky-high – which brings in the H!

The best part of the book as per me is the compartmentalization of the acronym into the attendant sub-genres; like Accountability has been broken up into  Being aware, Taking Responsibility, Making a Choice, Thinking Deeply, & Setting High expectations, These are great tools of self-analysis, provided you are paying close attention. That is why I suggest be slow; understand each word.I could have read this at one go – I took three days to fully absorb each word. Will in fact re-read so that implementation can start!

Let me conclude with a flurry of questions; we rarely think of how the unthinking comment will demoralize the team or the vendor; how one action of neglect is picked up by the whole team and emulated; how one action of ignoring or procrastination can set a culture of the same; how one action of giving up can lead a strategy astray. The personal example I gave ins mute testimony of how uncaring employees together spoiled the best coping strategy derived. Everything was in place; every eventuality catered to. Only problem – the team was not convinced, across levels and departments.., and a change team of 10 cannot change an organisations’ culture….

In conclusion, I can only state that is the easily the most practical, powerful, and implementable management book I have ever read in my life – and I have read quite a few, even if I do say so myself. And what is more, these are the very reasons that brands fail; the reason that teams fail. If you are operating on STAR{CH} mode, then the likelihood of you  receiving early warning signals goes up exponentially, giving you time to set a corrective course… 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Book Review - An Era Of Darkness {An Analytical Examination}

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Each idea has its own time; and each movement requires an inflection point, the point from which the momentum changes rapidly. This book marks one such inflection point in our nation’s history; it is a watershed moment for us. Living in an era where the past was considered to be done with & forgotten; when its lessons in danger of being unlearnt; and when colonialism was all but forgotten – one could not have hoped for anything better than this book.

Image result for dr shashi tharoor

The Author is, first and foremost, a very famous Indian, a very famous international diplomat, an Indian Parliamentarian, and a very well known figure in Indian literary circles with more than several top-notch books to his credit in the realm of fiction as well as non-fiction. And when such a famous and erudite personality puts his knowledge forward through social media and books, it both makes a tremendous impact as well as acts as a force multiplier as public interest is kindled. 

This has reversed the trend of Indians forgetting The Raj, and indeed revealed to all that the majority Indians have, in fact, not forgotten anything – as can be judged from the response to this magnificent book from all corners of India, as the entire Nation rose as one in adulation for this work. For the first time, a book has taken centrestage, and is getting accolades cutting across all divides, becoming a MAJOR national talking point. Kudos, Dr Tharoor! 

This book is unique among the 40-odd I have read on The Indian Independence Struggle; I rate it as among the 3 best in this genre. The other two are the ones by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and the masterpiece, the best of them all – the one by Narendra Singh Sarila. There are many other top notch ones- you can find them on my blog, or I shall shortly be reviewing them; like Jaswant Singh, The Mahatma’s Autobiography, Pankaj Misra, Bipin Chandra, etc. But this one – An Era OF Darkness – is unique among all these.

The reason for that is the book isn’t a plain regurgitation of facts and the attendant analyses; it also analyses British opinion, reasons of their actions. It also looks at contemporary issues in the light of the history, like the Kohinoor {Which was, is and always will be Indian}, or the self-examination of the suggested Presidential System of Governance. It brings new facts to light, such as, in the early phase of Colonialism, there were several British voices who felt the evil they were doing.

But more than even this, this book is unique as it is the first one that attempts to collate the entire damage caused by Colonialism into one book {I am indicating a few readings in parenthesis to underscore the massive ground this book covers}; you will find everything here, and with proof. It looks at the extensive monetary damage {Mukherjee, RC Dutt, Irfan Habib, and others}. 

It looks at the creation of Agricultural Distress {Irfan Habib, Tope, and many more}, Industrial Destruction {Durant, Tope, Habib, RC Dutt}, Opium {Tope – extensively covered} , Famines {Dutt, Mukherjee} , creation & hardening of caste divisions in India {Misra} , creation & hardening of the communal issues in India {Azad, Sengupta, BC Pal, Nehru, and many others} , and much, much more. This is what elevates this book to among the top Three.

It also systematically takes on the proponents of the Colonialism-wasn’t-all-bad brigade, and destroys all their arguments with clinical, relentless and brutal precision. No quarter is asked for, none given to these people and their hopeless arguments-  and all in completely parliamentary language. Be it Democracy, or be it The Railways – each Colonial “benefit” has been ruthlessly delinked from the Colonial Enterprise. As a matter of fact, that is also counter-factual. One of the first known forms of Democracy {Oligarchy}, is known to be present in India long before Christ… “The Ganasangh {Early India – Romila Thapar}”. If we can do it once- we can certainly do it again.

That said, the book doesn’t mention this; it takes a more contemporary analyses, proving that if we are democratic, it has nothing to do with The British, and everything to do with us and our decision in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And India? Well, as others – Sanjeev Sanyal, Tope and others state – India is an Ancient Concept. And doubters would do well to note the rise of a major central power in the Marathas just before The Raj. {Sanjeev Sanyal, Tope, book on Shivaji}

It also brings to fore the continuous waxing and waning views on colonialism from a British viewpoint, as well as American viewpoints, with consistent references to criticism emanating from their own nations, as well as the mass public support Colonialism had. The total lack public condemnation of Colonial Atrocities by the citizens of The UK, and indeed the overt support for such atrocities {Gen Dyer, anyone?} makes you sick to the core of your heart. 

This brings a question to my mind – how can any civilization who held such sickening views claim to be civilized? I think it is we, The Indians, who Civilized The West. The book also suggests the same, though not in so many words. The author has to be commended for his incredible control.

There aren’t many, to be perfectly honest. The only errors, or rather ommissions I could notice were slight, not worth the mention. I would just like to highlight a couple of points that were missed, to set the record straight and introduce new reading suggestions to the public. The first is Sati, and Thuggee. As Pavan K Verma proves in this book, this was a victory won squarely by Indians, with the first law against it being by A Mughal Emperor. In fact, by the time of the British, Sati was a dead practice- as Mr Verma proves with British Facts and Figures. Thuggee, well, Mr Verma also has a lot  to say on it… it was never a major threat! {Becoming Indian - Pavan K Verma}

The second miss is, sadly, a major one. That said, some reference has been made towards this, as Dr Tharoor does discuss the loss of Self-Respect and a couple of other points. And that miss the aspect of & destruction of our languages and culture, as has been eloguently put forth in the book by Mr Verma referenced above. It is a fact that Indian local languages, arts and cultures were denigrated, and lost patronage. 

The latest Marathi movie – Katyaar Kaalzaat Ghusli – gives an idea of the kind of lavish patronage local arts and artists enjoyed. The loss of this patronage was so severe, that it is only now, 70 years after independence, that they are getting closer to there they used to be; so much so, that at long last, local languages & arts are getting contemporary support of the teens and twenty somethings, that the vernacular media is rising faster than the English Media.

One of the finest books ever penned on The Indian Colonial Experience, especially the damage it caused. If you are looking for one resource, and don’t have the inclination, unlike me {I have been researching this for 8 years now}, to read several volumes, this is the book for you. Having researched this subject, I am aware that the content is completely factual. The book leaves no doubt that there was nothing good that ever came out of the Colonial Experience. Best part is the last one or two chapters, which look at contemporary issues arising out of The Colonial Experience, squarely blaming the former colonial powers. 

For more details, you can read From The Ruins Of Empire from a Pan-Asian Perspective. As a matter of fact, much of the Business Rules are still reminiscent of Colonialism, as I analyse in my three articles on The Modern Post-Colonial World, which remains Colonial in nature…. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

War Memorial, Southern Command - Indian Army


This is, to me, as well as to any number of other Indians, a pilgrimage site; a visit to a War Memorial of the Indian Army. One of these is located at Pune, Southern Command. I ended up spending 3 hours almost over there, as well as taking home a superb Souvenir from the Souvenir Shop – a lovely Indian Army Coffee Mug, something I shall treasure for a very long time!

Words are superfluous here; please enjoy and feel the enclosed photographs, set in the superbly scenic well maintained greens… just this once, no prose. I have no words in my mind or my heart; it is just too full with emotion even now, two hours later. I cannot describe my feelings as I carefully went through the entire range of the displays, which are both open-air as well as in a Museum. Best of all, these contain original photographs from Armed Forces Missions and Wars… these photpgraphs and the displays speak for themselves… some pictures speak louder than words...

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Book Review - Is It Maya?

The best books in the fiction genre are those that are born out of the local fare, the local news and the local trends – for the perfectly simple reason that the readers can easily connect with them. The current book under review may not be among the best, but is easily one of the better ones in Indian Fiction in the English Language. This book, and others such, make me sad – for want of sufficient space on book shelves, and a greater marketshare. For these books derserve far greater share than they get.

Image result for is it maya saikat bakshiThe book has been inspired by one of the most prominent cases to hit out Media in recent times, that of a solialite arrested for the murder of her daughter / sister. I am pretty sure this will ring bells in the minds of most Indian readers.  The story is that of Maya, a Media baroness, who gets arrested for the murder of Veena, her purported sister. Turns out that the sister is actually the daughter, a sordid tale unto itself. Also involved are a literal litany of her ex-lovers, for this Maya has quite a history, a rather purple-coloured history of an achiever who kept morals far away in her rise up the corporate ladder. But, the big question is : is she really the criminal?

The difficulty in writing a fiction book on current events is that reader comparison happens; cynicism also sets in, as there is the tendency to underplay the content and the imagination that goes into crafting a fictional story out of such events. Such books have to quickly set a tone of their own, kindle reader interest pretty fast; and keep the readers interested right through. Second, the plot should be sufficiently different, using the real event only as an inspiration, that is – the story should be individual, not a copy.

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Is It Maya quite successfully negotiates most of these challenges. It takes off smoothly, and quickly engages the reader into its content and its pages. The plot has no twists and turns of a major nature; despite this, interest has been maintained through a combination of constant and consistent introduction of new characters into the story, and new facts. Each carries the story forward in some way, each introduces new elements into the story. This keeps interest going.

The pace is not frenetic; this is an easy-paced book. There is no violence of any sort; this is not a thriller by any stretch of imagination. This is more of a book around the human-interest anger, and a suspense genre book.  The continuous refusal of Maya to admit guilt, despite breaking down and confessing to the true relationship between her and Veena, is one point that increasingly creates questions in your mind. And yet, it keeps the reader interested right till the last page, which makes it an excellent fiction book!

The character development is adequate for the genre; there are only two strongly etched characters in this. Befitting the title – Is It Maya – the strongest and most developed character is of Maya. The only other character who is comparably well developed is Vivek, a childhood friend; and Maya’s latest husband, David. Everyone else is subdued, which all comes together in the end. The skillful method of holding back information has been excellently deployed, with the end being completely logical. All in all, this book is an excellent read on a journey, or on a tour,  as a good time-pass. Rated 3.5 Stars out of 5.