Some Soft Stuff About Big Guns

  Photo by AWSeebaran/iStock / Getty Images (Illustrative Image Only)

Photo by AWSeebaran/iStock / Getty Images (Illustrative Image Only)

“We’ve checked with the hotel,” the key organiser said from the podium. “They have no plans to do a fire drill today. So if the alarm rings, it’s the real thing.”

Just a start-of-the-event routine, of course. Still, the announcement evoked light titter in dispersed pockets among the audience. People were in a good mood. We’d been served coffee and tea and good pastry while we waited for the hall doors to open, which they did at 09:00, as scheduled, accompanied by a tinkling bell to shepherd us — a uniformly dark-suited lot — into the large, swank hall. The host was a British company with operations in England and America and the Middle East and Australia. An old reputation for punctuality was at stake.

The company has been active in India since times when the nation was a British dominion. This important fact was given us by the CEO (an Indian) of the company’s Indian operations, whose father once commanded the sole aircraft carrier in the Indian Navy. When a boy, the CEO has played many times on the deck of that aircraft carrier. Being raised like that has done things to him: He was confident like hell, with a chest to match which he held out, and impressive height, and slicked-back hair — plus, in his stance, a faint whiff of the warrior.

He had two massive displays of that venerable vessel behind him — pasted on PowerPoint, one image on either side of him. I don't know about the others in the hall, but, coming as I do from small-town India, I envied him his boyhood playground.

Through a crisp presentation, the CEO detailed the history of the company’s involvement with India: supporting the defences of Kolkata at the start, through the Wars afterwards, and as a supplier of field guns and combat-aircraft and trainer aircraft to independent India. Now the company aims to win market share against the increased competition of today. To win Indian business, it needs to mandatorily demonstrate a commitment to developing Indian suppliers, and do its own manufacturing in India.

We were suppliers attending the conference. They were top-management folks engaged in procurement. Through speeches and videos, they told us what a good thing it is to be their supplier; senior guy after very-senior guy spoke and congratulated us for being invited to the party.

To prove the point, they brought on stage the CEO of an Indian company that has already started supplies to them. This man was an officer in the Indian Army who resigned and joined the corporate world, bringing along a straight back, a stiff neck, and a marching gait. “It has been a great experience, I tell you,” he glowed. “We received the ultimate compliment from them. During the recent exercises, they fired our missiles from their guns.”

Having taken the stage, the soldier had made it his post, and he wouldn’t leave it. On and on he spoke of his experience with this customer. “You see, they didn’t teach us how to make a product,” he said. “They taught us to build systems. Really, I tell you, these people changed my life. I have learnt so much from them.” For good measure, he spoke the lines again.

I might have imagined it, but I think I saw a squirm left of me, a shift of posture on the right of me, and surely there was a repeat, and still, the soldier spoke on, clearly beyond time given him, and when he finished he didn’t appear satisfied. He seemed pained, like he felt far more praise was due than he’d given.

I saw him later, speaking to little groups at lunchtime, working hard to do justice to what he’d received from his host. He reminded me of some elders in my childhood who swore that the cure for India’s ills was to bring the English back, to give them whole our country. The English would whip us into discipline. They’d teach us the basics we lacked.

That was last week. I’m back now, working with my folks, like the other suppliers who would be working with their folks, to win, to qualify to work with this company and participate in making big, killer guns in India.

Good thing? You tell me.

Indian Manufacturing: Time to teach? To learn?

The visitor, the CEO of a public sector agency, was impressed with the plant. He said so, after we returned to the meeting room. I told him in return: “Everything we know we learnt from our customers.” The man paused. “We should stop admiring foreigners so much,” he chided the air about him. Ours is a 100% exporting company—if you’ll overlook that two customers, only two, are Indian plants of American companies. “The time has come for Indians to teach the world,” he said, powdering a coconut cookie over the glass bowl before him. He dropped a nibble-size bit of the cookie in his mouth and rested his eyes on mine. I remained silent.

“Really?” I had wanted to ask. But business is quite often the art of asking your ego to help zipper your courage.

They aren't idle as one might imagine, those who have lost in the last two decades a bit of the action in manufacturing—not in the the US, not in the Eurozone, not in Japan, and not in Japan’s neighborhood. In the US in this year they have begun to sum the costs of outsourcing manufacturing, scraping and unraveling costs that were buried in other accounts, and they have discovered that Americans could have lost in their outsourcing expeditions. In the same time, they have developed software for DFMA (Design for Manufacturing and Assembly) through which they can increase productivity so steeply that when the software is applied for the same part simultaneously in China and the US, the savings lose flesh and lose all allure. After that exercise, the guys have added the costs of logistics and defects-management, and they have come up with red, red numbers which they are going around with, showing them to folks. One of them who is catching attention with red numbers that he found himself is David Meeker, lecturer at MIT.

Already, some large corporations have brought some production back home to the US. NCR, GE, and Honeywell are visible examples and their experience has a new B-word raring to replace Bangalored, and that word is backshoring. And, though these teachers and executives have such exciting news, they aren’t crowing yet, they are at the moment merely presenting papers and pondering next moves. However, they have generated enough interest among enough manufacturers to make a reverse surge a (for Asians) worrisome possibility. For garnish for backshoring, there are the rising labor costs of China, and labor shortages, and uncertainty in foreign exchange rates, and, for large corporations, the ever-present dangers arising from poor treatment of workmen. Now add to the list the nagging fear of the threat to intellectual property.

Click through to "10 factories that changed the world"The first major mass-production hub was probably Venice, which produced a ship a day in its heyday, so as to rule the trade routes during renaissance in the 16th century. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries the Industrial Revolution brought big manufacturing to Britain, and the entire western world.  In America's turn men like Henry Ford contributed great innovations in mass-manufacturing. Right after, Japanese entrepreneurs with enviable zeal went to America and brought back American folks (Deming, in the main) who taught them to use statistical techniques to secure near-zero defects in product quality. Homegrown Japanese thinkers like Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno figured out the flows that yield low cost and high value. Some distance away the Taiwanese did the same more cheaply. While Americans pondered their failings, wealth found favor with a Maoist communist and China became the site for every advanced nation's larger factories—Japanese and European, Taiwanese and American. Now when the battle for manufacturing dominance has been, it so certainly seems, lost to China, the Americans appear to be coming up with new ideas, which the stories of NCR and GE and Honeywell suggest. In sum, manufacturing moves in and out and back into places where there is a constant interest to learn, and to innovate.

Even as Americans were struggling against Japan, American professors and businessmen and writers in search of a story went to Japan to learn. Some like Liker embedded themselves in places like the Toyota Motor Company and observed everything with the fresh eyes of interns. What men like Liker saw, they came back and described to Americans across the nation, through public and private talks and bestselling books. What they had seen were the fruits of the labor of men like Taiichi Ohno, who, through relentless reflection and minute observation built the Toyota Production System, which system is a Standard Operating Procedure in the rest of the world today. So, now as China pauses at a peak, America mulls a newfound opportunity to reclaim the game.

That is the question with which I gazed at the elderly man seated across me in my meeting room. Why this tearing hurry to teach? When we have a pressing need to learn? Who is India’s Ohno? Who is India’s Deming? Who among us has in this moment earned the right to teach the world? I ask these questions not with the doubtfulness of a pessimist, or as one who doubts the capabilities of our nation. I merely submit that we will serve our nation better through learning with even increased vigor, from the long list of teachers available around the world.

There is greater prestige in being a student. As a person or as a nation. Now and always.

an affordable approach to Business Excellence

I’d like to post some short notes from my work once in a while from now on.

My company could be called mid-sized. Which means we are a reasonable number of professionals, with a reasonable depth of resources—enough to aspire for growth, but lacking resources that we’d like for some other things we’d like to do.

For generating the knowhow for achieving Business Excellence, for instance. To create a toolkit for it.

Some years ago, we decided that the best approach to meet expectations of all stakeholders is Lean Manufacturing. The practice of lean manufacturing achieves for you a dramatically reduced cost while securing quality and delivery reliability, which leads to increased customer satisfaction, and hence more business, and more profits—which lead to stakeholder satisfaction all round. But how do we implement Lean Manufacturing? We went about doing what we could afford: we read Liker and Womack in group sessions, which was a good exercise, because it increased our understanding of the subject, and reinforced its indisputable usefulness, but in spite of the practical advise in the books we were taking too long to devise a set of tools and an overarching approach to implement and sustain Lean Manufacturing.

Sometime then, United Technologies became our customer. They are a Fortune 500 company, and a committed practioner of Lean. To perfect their understanding and practice of Lean, they established long ago a learning center—the Ito University, founded by a Japanese professional, the late Ito—which evolved an operating system based on Lean Manufacturing which UTC has named ACE, or Achieving Competitive Excellence. UTC share the ACE technique with those suppliers who are willing to learn it.

We decided: Abandon all other initiatives: If UTC have poured millions of dollars into ACE, and if great minds are constantly evolving ACE toward perfection and, as we have seen, if ACE has created fine manufacturing units for UTC all round the world, and if UTC are willing to teach us the technique, then let’s put all our faith in ACE and strive to surpass UTC factories. More than two years have passed since we took that decision, and our faith in ACE has grown. We are not yet near our goal: UTC call their best practitioners of ACE as their ACE Gold Sites, and we are some distance from being as good as the Gold Sites, but we are winners of the UTC Supplier Gold—the first manufacturer in India, 92nd in the world. That puts us at least on square one, or maybe some squares ahead, and it has surely put us on a speedy path to Lean.

They say that if you terribly want to do something, and you are desperately seeking someone who'll show you the way, then in time a guru will appear. In business, the guru is quite often the customer. If you have taken care to win the very best customers, you are set to find the greatest guru.


See also: Ramadorai at the UTC Annual Supplier Conference, New Delhi, 9-Nov-2011.

some gloom, some sun, and the sound of music

 Coffee Day Square

Coffee Day Square

The stone-block men and the stone-block lad are clothed for Siberia and a couple of them hold umbrellas over themselves, and clutch some baggage each. They, and their umbrella, and their baggage, and their demeanor, are all gray and mysterious, and utterly alien. During the workday a fountain rises low and falls upon them, but when I pass them before eight they are cooled only by the morning breeze in the relative open where Cubbon Park ends and UB City begins. The other day a tramp sat in an asana there with the light flitting on his face, before Cafe Coffee Day, and the breeze blew his long beard here and there and he was abuzz with the energy of the morning that flowed about him and into him, and he guffawed at every rider who went round the bend before him. He spoke out loud, yet none could hear, and he tried to connect with the traffic, rising on his haunches, and almost none saw him, and none laughed back in greeting, and none took heed to see the hilarity in the morning, in life under that smothered sun, in our rush through the curdling smog, in our concentrated frowns, in the beginnings of the frenetic Bangalorean week.

 Hical Technologies at Electronica Bangalore

Hical Technologies at Electronica Bangalore

Hical stall at Electronica, BangaloreDuring the week we participated in Electronica, advertised as the largest electronics fair in India, even if it was in only two smallish halls when compared with the seven or nine gigantic halls in the parent fair which goes by the same name in Munich. But the action in those two halls revealed the growing electronics business in India. We did well, but when the fair drew to a close I worried if others did better. And when I left our stall to see how others were doing, when I came to the stalls of the machine manufacturers, I gawked at the new models, and sensed a recently receded emotion reappear. Machines depress me, and the more they can mint the more they appall me, like when I see in the west the highways which arrive into giant clovers and go hurling over one another and twist and fall and speed away to everywhere.


Linkin Park, Minutes to MidnightThe week was saved because of The Clash: I listened to London Calling, and delighted in the exuberant vocals whose boyishness is accentuated by their blocked-nose voices. London Calling! The Right Profile! I loved the album so much. I’m going to Germany this month-end and to London thereafter, and today I bought a ticket for a show for Lennon in Liverpool, on 8-October, the eve of his 70th birth anniversary. I told Yashas I will also attend in Germany a Linkin Park concert, and he laughed for so long. “They’re not for you, daddy” he cried, “my friends will never believe my father likes Linkin Park!” I put off the purchase of that ticket and bought another, for Leonard Cohen’s concert in Stuttgart.

But I’m listening to Minutes to Midnight as I write this, on this weekend evening, and I cannot understand why Yashas thinks Linkin Park aren’t the rock band for me. They’re as foreign to me as any other rock group, but I’m swaying and rocking and nodding while I delete one word, and throw back my head to think up another.

notions of immortality

The walls come down the hill like two aged arms of the young Fort Canning Centre. People were shooting the Canning Centre, and the two plain two-hundred year old cupolas built by the architect Coleman, and the greens between the walls—with small and large cameras. None came up to the two old walls to see the tombstones embedded in them, mostly of Europeans—young men and women, some too young, and the old not very old. They have died in the first half of the nineteenth century, faced with a low life-expectancy, like Thomas Henry, Assistant Surgeon, remembered on these walls and who, at 22, has died well ahead of others whose lives he should have improved, or saved. Fort Canning Wall Cemetery I saw the walls the day after the Chinese New Year’s Day of the Year of the Tiger. The day before, a rock band performed on the greens between these cemetery walls. They removed the props and the chairs and the dismantled stage while I read Alain de Botton’s book on The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, in the pavilion by the entrance. On the front of this Canning Centre is the gate of Canning Fort, and shortly down a bend from it is a remnant of the old fort wall. They speak modestly of this rather modest wall and gate, built in 1859, when the English in all their dominions felt the tremors of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 in India; here in Singapore they built this shelter for protection against potential local trouble. The smallest Indian fort will laugh derisively at this baby-fort, but who worries for Singapore’s scant history when in its present it shines to the envy of most others? Just beyond the reach of the old arms of Canning Centre are the Singapore Management University and the Singapore National Museum. The museum is celebrating some other dead, with relics from distant Egypt, on loan from Vienna until April. The displays are from the Old Kingdom five millennium ago, through to Ptolemaic times. Whereas the tombstones of the dead Europeans lacked visitors this holiday, the response to this “Quest for Immortality” (as the museum calls the Egyptian gallery) has surprised the museum officials. I stood in line for an hour, and for another hour I craned over others’ heads and bent and twisted into gaps between people to read the legends and to catch a glimpse of the relics. Singapore National Museum People clicked more than they saw; even the legends they clicked, as though the right plan is to gather everything into digital memory and to view them later somewhere. So the remains of royals and nobles and commoners were digitized with great energy by common people armed with gadgets the ancients couldn’t have dreamed possible, and, in a way, the quest of the ancients for immortality was meeting with success, but in a way that I’m not sure they’d desired. The men and women who became mummies would have known that their brains would be sucked out from their nostrils and discarded, but their liver and lung and other organs would be sealed in separate jars and would sit in the company of their mummy. Did they relish the thought of being immortal in that fashion? I have been walking long distances, saying no to the taxi, enjoying the flora of this city. And I watched Avatar, and it seemed right to watch that movie in this city where the trees are like those in the film, if not in size and grandeur then at least in variety and complexity. Every morning at breakfast I look out to the trees and an embankment and higher trees above it, and the scene seems to have been created just to make this window perfect. But, after gazing through the window for a while, the trees begin to suggest the jungle this island has been, which now is no more a jungle, but is surely the loveliest of parks. Speaking of Avatar again, if you consider that the word is of Indian origin, then consider that the gods came down in various avatars to settle matters with men, often with such men who’d gotten out of hand. Sometimes the avatar played mischief with man, but always to a good purpose in the end. Here in Avatar are men playing gods with the Navi people on planet Pandora and, when the film ends, the chief avatar helps the Navi to not accept tragedy from the hands of men. This morning I saw an artwork in the Singapore Art Museum, by Ringo Bunoan who lost his mother on 1-June-1986 and sublimated his private tragedy, his “remembrance, loss, and sorrow,” through looking up another eight persons who had died the same day as his mother. His mother is depicted by four clean white pillows with a photograph of her memorial on each, and the other eight are identical pillows differentiated by a picture on top of each person’s memorial, and the total of twelve pillows are laid clockwise to communicate all things that life, time, and death mean. A Singaporean teenager standing next to me said the thing “looks eery.” I tried to find my emotion and name it, for I was born on a first-of-June.
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