There was a time when India’s workmanship was the benchmark for quality around the world. For centuries, handmade silks, unique jewellery pieces, brocades, tapestries and carpets from India were sought-after items around the world. Mulmul khaas—the diaphanously fine clothing of emperors—known to the world as Dhaka muslin and Kashmiri pashmina shawls were of such high quality that they were considered to be woven from the wind. In contrast, my grandfather used to tell me tales of how when he was a boy about a hundred years ago, Japanese electrical products were considered shoddy and synonymous with poor quality. British colonization of India, industrial mass production and the changeover from artisanal quality management to statistical quality control dramatically altered this relative equation.
Even though Japanese artisanal quality —calligraphy, kimono design, weaving, pottery and rice painting to name only a few—is legendary, the modern quality focus traces back to General Douglas MacArthur’s recruitment of Homer Sarasohn to improve the manufacturing processes of Japanese radios so that they could be used for public education. Sarasohn on return to the US recommended that W. Edwards Deming provide courses on statistical quality control to the Japanese engineers. Deming was, in turn, followed by Joseph Juran who expanded the quality concept to the total organization—total quality management (TQM). And so, modern quality management was born and adopted to perfection in postwar Japan. Some well-known elements of TQM are that quality should trump short-term profits, that the customer comes first, that decisions are based on facts and data, that employees should be on the front line of recommending process changes and that management is both accountable and participatory.
Independent postwar India was so absorbed in staying united and fighting social injustice that it sidelined any interest in the quality of its products or services. Combined with an import-substitution mindset, a newly industrializing India abandoned its historical artisanal quality but did not replace it with a modern obsession with quality. As the decades since independence have passed, this general apathy has been compounded by corruption—dramatically corroding the quality of public-service delivery.
Stories abound. Each of us encounters shoddy quality and poor implementation on an everyday basis. Garbage is not picked up on our streets, roads are dug up and not redone, train compartments and platforms are filthy and the postal system is unreliable. The popular perception that the lack of quality and a widespread implementation deficit are the failures of government is far from the truth. Private-sector (voice) mobile service has gone from being among the best in the world to being among the worst: this is to say nothing of crawling Internet speeds and ultra-expensive but poor data services. Service from private-sector banks is poor with pro-activity only being displayed on selling products without any understanding of what the customer needs. Speak not of our hoteliers, who provide the middle-class Indian with unclean rooms, filthy toilets and mediocre service. Every type of institution attempts to cheat if it can get away with it—and in so doing denies the customer a quality experience.
Major projects and schemes are announced with great fanfare but usually haphazardly and partially delivered: for instance, the road to the airport in Bengaluru is well paved but has bottlenecks each day at the Hebbal flyover, the gains of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are eroded by rampant corruption and shoddy implementation, and primary education in India is abysmal with rank-poor learning outcomes. The latest addition to this list of shoddy delivery is the 2016 demonetization. Everyone it appears has an opinion on the economic implication of this but the biggest implementation failure is the deviant design of the new notes that necessitates a new ATM tray. That has extended what should have been a two-three day dislocation to a two-month or more issue.
India’s quality and implementation deficit is not cultural. It is currently endemic to government, business and society, but it can change. In an earlier column titled “India’s Derailed Projects”, I suggest that this change will require (1) transparency (2) accountability/competition (3) enforcement and (4) pride. These elements taken together keep the customer and the citizen at the centre of every product and service. Pride in a job well done or excellence in a product or service is the glue that binds a system of implementation and quality together.
Democracy has correctly encouraged us to be tolerant of our heterogeneity. Unfortunately, it has also created a culture of compromise and adjustment on shoddy implementation. Alas, we are becoming intolerant of our diversity, but even more tolerant of shoddy implementation. Even as we celebrate our differences, we must hold our public service to a higher standard and ensure free and fair competition among our private-sector providers of product and service. We, each one, must demand and provide, service and product that meet not merely a standard of statistical quality but one that we can justifiably be proud of.
P.S. “Quality is pride of workmanship”, said Edward Deming, awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1960 for his contribution to Japan’s quality revolution.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/avisiblehand