August 2003

What injures the hive injures the bee

R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, shares his views on the three Ps of business: productivity, progress and people, and the importance of managing each well

R. Gopalakrishnan
I feel honoured to deliver this lecture in the memory of a true son of India, and a fine gift to the nation from the House of Tatas. Among the speakers who have delivered this lecture so far, I might well be the first person who did not know him personally. But I have learnt about him while preparing for this lecture. Today is his 99th birthday, so we begin his centenary year. He achieved international recognition in the field of employer-employee relations through his participation and leadership in the ILO and International Organisation of Employers.

At the condolence meeting in Bombay House in 1989, JRD Tata said of him, "Naval had a modern mind, and was always responsive to change." Clearly, he was sensitive to the role of people and organisational change. That is why I feel it appropriate to touch upon the productivity, progress and people aspects as our entire nation undergoes transformation. The challenge at such times is to extract the honey without injuring the beehive or the bees. Hence, the title. I would like to speak about how and when the concept of productivity entered the management lexicon, what deregulation has done to Indian productivity, what have been our own experiences at Tatas, and a concluding part on the challenges of keeping companies young.

Industrial growth and productivity
Centuries ago, economic prosperity in India was achieved through higher production by deploying more land and labour. Thus, the fertile soils of the Indus and the Ganges encouraged the development of a vast agricultural economy. The pressure to innovate and increase output through productivity was not strong in a land-abundant India. Not so with China1, for example, where there was less arable land than India but a similar size of population. The Chinese were compelled several centuries ago to innovate and develop methods of agriculture to extract more yield from the same land. To this day, China produces significantly more food than India with less cultivated land.

Turning from agriculture to industry, there is a similar pattern. In the last two centuries, economic growth in several countries has been stimulated by productivity increases rather than merely production increases. Throughout the Asia Pacific region, the post war boom was stimulated by a happy combination of factors – a spectacular rise in industrial productivity, an export orientation, and the adoption of new technologies2. In fact, the growth rates of industrial output achieved by these countries have exceeded the growth rates achieved by developed countries 100 years ago at their corresponding stage of development. The pattern of postwar industrial development has been to compress the cycle into a shorter time frame.

However, Indian industrialisation has been characterised by a weak influence of productivity as a factor in growth. It seems that the largest single contributor to industrial growth in India has been the accumulation of physical capital3. Industrialisation had three distinct phases: the first lasted from the early 1950s till 1966, when growth proceeded at a fast pace of about 8 per cent pa. The growth leaders were heavy industries like metals, machinery, chemicals and paper. Consumer goods grew rather slowly.

The second phase lasted from 1966 to 1980, during which period growth dropped to 5 per cent pa. Metals, machinery and like items slowed down, but there was a somewhat better growth in consumer goods industries. By the end of this second phase in 1980, the over-restrictive and self-defeating nature of the regulatory framework began to be evident and there appeared the first signs of deregulation. Mrs Gandhi declared 1982 as 'productivity year'. Industrial policy permitted 133 per cent of highest production to be produced, and the decontrol of cement and fertiliser industries accelerated. During the third phase from 1980 to 1991, in a sort of turnaround, industrial growth picked up back to the levels of the first phase. The third phase was characterised by especially fast growth in consumer durables and some capital goods such as electrical machinery.

These developments most likely reflect the prevalent thinking of those times. It was fashionable in the 50s to think of savings and investment rates as the main determinants of growth. Productivity was perhaps regarded as a given technological parameter. Looking back, it seems as though there was little concern among policy makers for the efficiency with which capital and labour were used, or for ways of improving productivity through organisational or technological upgradation. Influenced by the emerging concept of Total Factor Productivity (TFP), a number of exercises were done in the 80s on the TFP growth of Indian industry. TFP growth is the residual of what is over and above the growth attributable to the inputs, i.e. materials, labour and capital. This residual arises because of technology (new machines) and organisation (how people work). To put it in less arcane language, output equals materials plus labour plus capital plus techno-managerial inputs.

By the early 90s, at least nine studies had been published on the TFP growth for Indian industry for periods from 1946 to 1986. Every single one of those nine studies showed that the TFP growth of the Indian industry was negative or mildly positive. What this means is that growth of industrial output has been achieved by us largely through increased materials, labour and capital inputs, and there has been little or no contribution to the growth from techno-managerial inputs. Now this is quite a stunning statement to have to accept! But it is true. Experientially also, such a statement does not appear to be out of place as one reflects on the state of efficiency and competitiveness of Indian industry right up to the early 90s.

Deregulation and management
Due to deregulation in the last decade, the industrial economy has seen increased competition, a weaker effect of the public sector and an outward orientation through higher foreign trade intensity. All of us have lived through this decade with fear, wonder, adjustment and hope.

As managements of companies try to cope, what is the evidence that their collective techno-managerial capability is positively reflected in the industrial economy? My colleagues in the Tata Department of Economics and Statistics (DES) have completed a rather contemporary study4 to assess the impact of economic reforms on productivity trends. If techno-managerial inputs have been effective, then it should reflect in a fillip to the TFP growth rate. This could have happened in the aggregate or in segments. The study compared a pre-reform decade with the post-reform decade in the National Factory Sector (public and private) based on the Annual Survey of India (ASI) data. It also evaluated the performance of the private manufacturing sector (774 companies) based on CMIE / Prowess data. Two headlines:

(i) In the national factory sector as a whole, TFP growth has increased from a meager 0.68 per cent pa to 0.97 per cent pa. This is better than before, but way behind what the industrial economy needs. Perhaps it takes time to see a significant shift in the whole sector quite so soon. This is corroborated by a study published by Marcel Timmer of the University of Groningen. India had a TFP of 15.4 per cent of the US in 1987 and 17.2 per cent in 1997.

(ii) Viewing separately the private manufacturing sector during 1992-2001, the TFP growth at 2.56 per cent is higher than the national factory sector as a whole. Further, the top 50 private manufacturing companies have shown a TFP growth of 3.31 per cent, quite an impressive figure, clearly suggesting the positive influence of techno-managerial inputs into the business. Though it is a biased comparison of India's best with others' average, it is reassuring to note that the TFP growth of our best 50 compares well with the average rates of 4.5 per cent achieved by countries like South Korea and Malaysia. This means that someone in India is getting it right!

None of this should come as a surprise. Clearly there is a huge churn with the most adaptive companies responding successfully to the challenge of increased productivity while a huge mass is convulsing and learning how to respond. This means that deregulation is indeed working by compelling industrial firms into the path of productivity improvement. For many years, our culture has not been very productivity oriented, in agriculture until the Green Revolution and in industry until the 90s. Therefore, this evidence of a techno-managerial transformation underway is significant. It demonstrates a changing mindset in our country.

It was only a hundred years ago that for the first time Frederick Winslow Taylor5 studied manual work and the worker. At that time, he questioned the well-understood concept of craft skill and demonstrated that manual work was a series of simple motions. From David Ricardo through to Karl Marx, it was accepted that there were enormous differences in skill between workers, but there were none in respect to productivity other than between hard workers and lazy ones.

'Productivity' as an idea did not exist; indeed, the word 'efficiency' entered the management lexicon about a hundred years ago, thanks to Harrington Emerson, who viewed efficiency as a 'natural' rather than a 'mechanical' concept. The most important, and indeed truly unique, contribution to management in the 20th century was the huge increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing. The most important contribution that management needs to make in the 21st century is, similarly, to increase the productivity of the knowledge worker. Thus, the Indian manufacturing sector is facing and coping with the central challenge of the management profession all over the world. What an exciting time to be a manager in India!

The history of the auto industry6 reveals anecdotes and vignettes that embellish this point about techno-managerial value additions to production output. A 1915 survey of the Highland Park workers in Ford revealed that workers spoke more than 50 languages and that many of them could barely speak English. How could this army of strangers co-operate to produce a greater volume of a complex product like the Model T?

In 1949, a collapse in sales forced Toyota to terminate a large part of its workforce, resulting in a strike. Eiji Toyoda became president and he entered the 1950s with a long trip to the US. Later, he reminisced, "They let me see every step of the operations…the gap between their production and ours was so enormous that although I found the knowledge useful, it was not possible to apply their methods right away." Back in Japan, Eiji Toyoda and his production genius, Taiichi Ohno, concluded that the US-style mass production would never work in Japan. From this tentative conclusion was born what the world has come to call the Toyota Production System or Lean Manufacturing.

Honda, which was a tiny upstart in the auto industry7 in the 1960s, continues to grow in an industry in which the belief is that unless you are massive, you cannot survive. Honda's "way of managing" has always emphasised innovation. Honda's plant in Maryland, Ohio was among the first plants in the US to be ranked among the most efficient auto factories in the world. This woke up the auto industry because it demonstrated that it was Honda's method of organising that gave Honda its advantage.

When China joined the WTO in 2001, it was expected that the domestic car industry would get a huge shock. The reality has stood conventional wisdom on its head. Unheralded Chinese companies have been very successful, and the big international players like Volkswagen have been surprised. Likewise, in India. Only three years ago, India was considered uncompetitive and lacking scale in automobiles and components, but today, the scenario somehow looks different.

Experiences at Tata Group
It could be boring to listen to a chronicle of the steps taken and experiences of the Tata Group in the quest for techno-managerial improvement. Instead, I will tell it like a story of how the Group might look to Naval Tata, if he should be reincarnated and revisit Bombay House. The last published accounts he would have seen before his death would have been for the year ending March 1988 and today, he could see the data for the year ending March 2003, a 15-year gap.

He would see that the six major manufacturing companies like Tata Steel, Tata Motors, Tata Chemicals and so on have all successfully increased their TFP growth rate in the post-reform period by a really huge factor. This means that in these companies, there has been considerable cost rationalisation, adoption of new technologies and new ways of working. He would note that each of these Tata companies has achieved a TFP growth that is well ahead of the average of the top 50 private sector manufacturing companies.

As a person interested in labour and employment, he would find that the employee strength of these companies has declined by 4.3 per cent pa in the post-reform period compared to an increase of 1.2 per cent pa in the pre-reform period. Real value added per employee doubled from Rs 2,740 to Rs 5,460 in these companies, while capital per unit of output declined from 1.14 to 0.59. He would not fail to be pleased by this data, as it would reassure him that the Tatas continue the traditions of excellence fostered by him and JRD Tata in a different context, a different era.

The Group itself has changed a lot, he would find. He would find a single power company instead of the three he knew, but continuing to impart to Mumbai the sobriquet of "India's only diesel-set free city". His favourite, Tata Power Company, has spawned a joint venture with BP to make solar energy cells in a Bangalore facility.

He would perhaps be shocked to find that the Tatas have no more business interest in textiles, cement, soaps and cosmetics, all of which in his time were thought of as bedrocks of the Group. He would be amazed that Tata Steel counts among the world's best steel companies. The roads have over two million vehicles, trucks and cars, bearing the Tata name prominently. Over 400 million packets of salt and 50 million kilograms of tea enter the stomachs of a billion Indians; most probably, the Tata brand touches more Indians than any other!

Tata Consultancy has joined the ranks of the big boys among Group companies and along with other software companies, the Group's sales crossed the US$ 1-billion mark in FY 2002-03, a first for any Indian software player. He would find Tatas making huge investments in telecom, pitching to be the No. 1 private sector player. His favourite hotel, Taj, would show him video clips of its centenary. Indian Hotels is perhaps the first Indian public company to be still intact as the original legal entity and complete 100 years.

He had always thought of Tatas as low cost manufacturers of commodity products, but he would wonder whether they had transformed into a marketeer of branded services and products. He would not fail to notice that all Tata company managers have a common identity on their visiting cards and letter-heads, that all employers have signed a code of conduct for ethical behaviour. He would be proud that ethical standards were being upheld and promoted even at the risk of bad publicity in the short-term due to some aberrant behaviour of a few.

To cap all this, when he would ask for Group statistics, he would be told that from sales of Rs 5,772 crore in 1988, the Group had sales of Rs 52,000 crore in 2003, a growth rate of 16 per cent pa compared to 11 per cent pa for over 600 companies in the private sector studied by RBI. Profit after tax increased more rapidly from Rs 227 crore in 1988 to Rs 3,713 crore in 2003. This increase is 21 per cent pa compared to 15 per cent pa for the same 600 companies in the RBI study.

Comparing the top six companies in the Group with the best in the stock market shows a growth rate which compares very well. All in all, he would marvel at the improved productivity through techno-managerial inputs in the Group. Yet, he could be nonplussed by a comment from the current inhabitants of Bombay House that their journey has just begun: Tatas need to be globally competitive! They need to continuously reinvent themselves.

As a father, he would undoubtedly take a quiet and private delight in all these positive developments have been engineered by his own son.

Keeping companies young
Stephen Jay Gould, the evolutionary biologist, suggests that those species that can hold on to their youth have the most potential to evolve. Adults in all species teach their young proven adult practices to enable their young to venture safely into the world on their own. Companies die8 because their managers focus on the economic activity of producing goods and services, and they forget that their organisation's true nature is that of a community of humans.

Therefore, to cope with a changing world, any entity must develop the capability to shift and change, to develop new skills and attitudes; in short, the capability to learn, the ability to manage change by changing oneself. This requires leaders and organisations that revel in complex, ambiguous situations, sometimes actually seeking out challenging disorder because voluntary complexity is much easier to bear than the kind that comes roaring out of nowhere.9

While the need for transformation of organisations is well recognised, the "how to be successful" question does not lend itself to stereotypes. Leo Tolstoy began his Anna Karenina with the line "All happy families resemble each other but every unhappy family is unhappy for its reason". So it is with institutions that require change.

All around we see signs of failure: the depressing social and organisational indicators that point to the inability of leaders to bring about constructive change. Evidence10 indicates that people who understand why change is resisted and are willing to make the personal investments required to overcome that resistance are likely to achieve the goal they seek. The greatest mistake leaders can make is to assume that results alone matter and that morality and goodness have gone out of style. On the contrary, as amorality becomes more rampant, in the heart of darkness, the natural instinct is a craving towards light. As a nation, we need results, we need them desperately, but with goodness and moral purpose.

It is to Marcus Aurelius that I owe the title of this talk. He was born to a prominent Roman family in 121 AD and later became the emperor. He led a hard life in the service of the state, much of it spent far away from home. A devoted reader and thinker, his Meditations have given him a lasting reputation. He wrote sensitively about taking honey out of the beehive without injuring the bee. Similar is the challenge of attaining productivity through techno-managerial inputs, of keeping organisations and institutions youthful. Our nation is on the way, but not quite in a purposeful enough direction yet. All of us have the unique opportunity to make a difference.

The Wealth and Poverty of Nations by David S. Landes
The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
Indian Industry: Policies and Performance by Dilip Mookherjee
Reforms, Productivity Trends in Indian Manufacturing Sector by J. K. Mukhopadhyay and others, Tata Department of Economics
Knowledge-Worker Productivity by Peter Drucker
The Machine that Changed the World by James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos
Shaping the Future by Arun Maira
The Living Company by Arie de Geus
Geeks and Geezers by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas
Leading Change by James O'Toole

More Speakers' Forum articles:
Making India Inc angry: R Gopalakrishnan dissects the challenge of making India the manufacturer to the world from the managerial viewpoint
The quest for sustainable business: Sustainable development cannot be achieved by a single enterprise or by the entire business community in isolation, argues Syamal Gupta, the chairman of Tata International. It is a pervasive philosophy to which every stakeholder in society and participant in the global economy must willingly subscribe
The people principle: Dr Wayne Brockbank, professor of business at the University of Michigan Business School, explains the why, what and how of human resource strategy, and where companies can make the greatest gains

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