A few months ago, I was with an international delegation to China, to explore various dimensions of that country’s economic story.
Our trip took us to the beautiful city of Hanghzhou. One stop was a break-of-dawn visit to a Chinese garden, to witness the surreal morning dance ritual practised by thousands of Chinese. Walking up the long and wide pavement that led to the garden, I was struck by the aesthetic stone patterns, and the quality of the work. I remarked to my Swiss colleague, “See the perfect way the stones have been laid, with the joints continuing in a straight line?”
My Swiss friend sat on his haunches, inspected the tiles carefully, and said, “You might think this is a job well done, but frankly, no Swiss contractor would have his name attached to this work.”
I was surprised. “Why not?” I asked.
“The levels of the tiles are uneven. Also, notice where the pavement ends, the tiles haven’t been cut in a straight line.” He continued pointing out other areas when I stated, “Yes, I see, but let me be honest—if we had even this quality in India’s public places, I would be delighted.”
India is a nation that’s awash with mediocrity.
This isn’t limited to government, it is spread across all aspects of our society: private hospitals, architects, factories, dhobis, schools, banks, masons… the list is endless. We are a nation of average expectations and even poorer delivery. There are exceptions, islands of excellence in the swamp of ordinariness. But these are too few and far between to add up to anything.
Clearly, our expectations of quality are below that of Switzerland.
There are no easy explanations for this difference. The desire to excel has little to do with poverty—changing attitudes doesn’t cost anything.
This is not some romantic quest that we cannot afford at this stage of our national development.
In fact, it has a direct bearing on the strength and sustainability of our economic success. As our engines of growth are revving up, a sense of confidence and pride is emerging in our youth. But this is being expressed through misplaced displays of nationalist jingoism, or other collective emotions of aggressive pride.
The search for excellence is rooted in a different kind of pride: a quiet, personal pride in one’s own work. If we are not able to instil a relentless sense of quality into our work ethic, we risk getting stuck in a muddled economic equilibrium. Mediocrity feeds upon itself.
As we turn 60 and look ahead, the striving for excellence should become a national mantra. We need a national campaign that urges every individual to take pride in their work.
Other countries have done this.
After World War II, Japan stood for mediocrity and “Made in Japan” meant products of substandard quality. There were many who contributed to a resurgent national identity built around the principle of excellence. Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, was one. Edward Deming, the father of quality, was another. Slowly, over the years, this approach spread and Japan became the world’s undisputed quality champion.
Michael Finley of the American Society for Quality writes, “No free society can ignore the issue of quality. Healthy societies are societies in which the entire population is trained and motivated to do good work—services, manufacturing, the arts, in every sector. Extraordinary civilizations—“golden ages”—occur when every sector is aware of and working towards excellence.”
India needs to take inspiration from this.
No doubt, excellence is about processes and institutions and a number of other factors. But it must begin with a change of attitude, with individuals taking pride in their work.
We need a national campaign for excellence in all fields—industry, government, services, small-scale entrepreneurs, schoolteachers, health workers —essentially everyone. We need a national campaign that gets to every movie theatre and television channel, autorickshaw and truck, tea shop and paanwala, a campaign that exhorts individuals to think differently about how they approach their work. We need our advertising gurus and marketing mavens to wear their creative hats and come up with catchy slogans. I would like to offer one here—“Take pride in your work! Don’t let the country down!”
Moving an entire nation into a new orbit takes enormous energy. Changes won’t be visible for years. But eventually, the signs will begin to show. One day, we will not just settle for perfectly aligned joints between the pavement stones, but also demand that the levels of the slabs be even.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org