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A culture of thinking

The vision of India as a manufacturing power calls for an educated workforce of thinkers and problem solvers

Narendra Modi’s speech on 15 August was by far the best Independence Day speech by a prime minister in decades. Even his most indefatigable opponents concede that as a piece of communication it was master-class, while they may have disagreed with the content or found it inadequate or insincere. Amongst the many memorable phrases in that speech was “Make in India". He was attempting to develop a new narrative for manufacturing in India. That part of the speech took me back 10 years ago.

For many years I was responsible for a manufacturing business. Soon after I moved to that role, I figured out three things: our market position in India while dominant was fragile, there were huge opportunities for growth outside India and to protect our India position and grow globally we needed to become enormously more competitive.

That is how I started pursuing Manohar to join me in the business. He was the best engineering mind that I knew. Through the 1990s, he had built and run the highest of high-tech manufacturing facilities, for one of the world’s largest multinationals. After he had got to know our business, he asked me, “Why have you outsourced your thinking?" He was referring to our manufacturing and engineering processes.

Over the next few years, we faced the vagaries of the market, faced intense competition within India, and in turn ourselves expanded and gained market share globally. Manohar and many other colleagues played pivotal roles. While I moved out of the business years ago, the effort continued. Today the business is enormously more competitive, stronger and bigger. It’s the global leader in an engineering intensive, precision manufacturing industry.

In those years as we battled for competitiveness, the toughest challenge was from South Korean and Japanese companies. We felt that the Japanese and Koreans must be cheating. It took many market skirmishes to accept the reality, that somehow we were missing something fundamental. It also demolished the belief that lower “labour cost", was key to competitiveness.

That fundamental was Manohar’s old question, “Why have you outsourced your thinking?". Competitiveness springs from outthinking others continually, not outsourcing thinking. This demand for outthinking was not only while formulating strategy but at all levels, in every excruciating detail and hidden in every unnoticeable minutia. Also, it was not about one day of good thinking, but layers and layers built over years. It was a culture of thinking. Such a culture of thinking demands everyone to think. From the design of the products, choice of the materials, design of the supply chain and the manufacturing processes to everyday issues of manufacturing, cost and quality, everything demands deep thinking. This was what our Japanese and Korean competitors were good at, and slowly we became good as well.

Let’s take an example. Our welders were no less skilled than the Koreans or Japanese. The issue went beyond skill. Did they understand geometry and use it? Could they figure out how metal parts will expand differentially and why? Could they use different mix of gases for heating? Could they change process design? It was all about curiosity, questioning, analysing, synthesizing, problem solving, creating options and examining critically. This was as true for the welder and machinist, as for the product designer and material specialist.

I observed across industries, that sustained competitiveness required this culture of thinking. All else was fleeting, including low labour cost. There is always another country which can offer lower labour cost; even more fundamentally, roles that don’t require thinking, and work that can be done mechanically, gets automated.

This basic restructuring of manufacturing has only accelerated and deepened; the future is going to need thinking workers even more than before. The prime minister’s vision of India as a manufacturing powerhouse calls for the preparation of an educated workforce of thinkers and problem solvers. So when I hear talk of how our school education must be changed to become more employability oriented and focused on specific vocational skills, I am horrified. Such ideas envision developing skilled (for example) welders, rather than thinking people who could be welders. This recipe will neither make people employable nor India a manufacturing powerhouse. Specific vocational training has its place, but not within basic school education.

In the past few decades, India has developed a rich and nuanced understanding of the aims of school education. This is reflected in our curricular goals and principles. For sure the progress in curriculum is not yet reflected in practice in most schools. But that doesn’t mean that we are not on the right track. Developing the ability to think is one of the central goals of our school curriculum. This arises from the basic aim of education, to develop a democratic society. In today’s hyper-competitive and dynamic market place, it is also at the core of employability and economic development.

To successfully “Make in India", we have to educate our youth well. Not just to be skilled workers, but to be smart and thinking individuals. That requires us to stick to first principles—of good education.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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