Rajeshwar Upadhyaya

Editor-in-Chief

Changing Tracks – Reinventing the Spirit of Indian Railways

Rajeshwar Upadhyaya

 

changing_track_rail

This book is a workmanlike account of how the Indian Railways went from near bankruptcy in 2001 to mega surplus in 2008, and made Lalu Prasad Yadav into a business guru, at least in the media. It is an interesting and revealing account, not least for demonstrating an inclusive Indian way to getting things done and achieving desirable objectives, instead of mowing employees down to cut costs. V. Nilakant {who is on the faculty at the Department of Management, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand} has, along with S. Ramnarayan {on the faculty of Indian School of Business, Hyderabad} turned out a surprisingly engaging book about the critical years 2004 to 2008 when Indian Railways finally woke up and realized some of its potential. The authors themselves were surprised to realize there was a real valuable story in this process, not just fruitful research material.

In transforming itself the Railways shattered many prevalent and erroneous beliefs. The three most seemingly impregnable were:

  1. Large organizations are almost impossible to change
  2. Government organizations should act like private corporations to succeed
  3. Financial incentives are necessary to motivate people

The Indian railways experience up-ended these hitherto self evident nostrums and proved them to be prejudices at best. The book is replete with illuminating details as to how this came about. The authors are to be commended for their meticulous research and sheer tolerance for drudgery; readers do not always realize how much labor goes into discovering the telling example.

The book is a testament to the Indian virtues of compromise and ‘jugaad’, which seem to be at the core of successful emotional intelligence too. The Minister Yadav was very fortunate in having a perfect buffer in his Officer on Special Duty, Sudhir Kumar, a man possessed of great patience and understanding, as well as tenacity to get his agenda fulfilled. Passengers were not to be troubled with fare increases and productivity was to be increased. Nobody was to be coerced and safety could not be compromised. These were the basic rules, and all change had to acknowledge them. Sudhir Kumar proved adept at listening to people and validating them and very soon the people he was listening to had become his champions for change in their departments. Yadav proved to have a deft touch in EQ also, contrary to his public image of abrasiveness. He went so far as to restrict political interference with officials of the Railways!!

What comes across in all the incidents reported is how much talent, competence and ability lies unutilized in our services. Given the slightest favorable environment this talent could bring about significant changes. Also nobody was, forgive the pun, railroaded into changes. Until consensus was obtained, Yadav and Kumar held their peace, but they did not stop seeking internal champions and they never gave up on their vision to make the Railways a profitable organization. “Unless a cow is fully milked it will fall ill” was Yadav’s pithy categorization of the process to fully utilize all capacity, resources and abilities of the Railways. A favorite technique was creeping incrementalism. If somebody opposed free upgrades on passenger trains then they were not forced to make the changes. Kumar went to the extent of suggesting merely a week’s trial on just one route to see if it caused the system to collapse. When it did not, and when the person concerned retired, the free upgrades were implemented all over with no fuss. Nobody lost face, nobody was fired and things took a little longer but they got done.

Once the people in the Railways realized that they had the Minister’s backing for serious change they began to manifest chutzpah levels of creativity. To arbitrarily increase freight loads, to even recommend it would have been a career killer, but one bright soul realized that he had carte blanche, under existing provisions, to conduct experiments. So long as his documentation and procedures were rigorous he could basically attempt to solve the maximum load limit conundrum. When the data proved irrefutable, nobody could really object and Indian Railways began carrying more freight than they had ever done. It was ironic, because a flourishing corrupt revenue stream in overloading carriages had already proved the point that loads could be increased with no safety fears!! But somebody needed to champion it in terms that were acceptable and comprehensible within the logic of the system.

The four key principles that the authors deduced from this fascinating period 2004 – 2008 were

To change requires you leverage the strengths of the organization instead of focusing on its weaknesses. In one sense the entire book is about this one principle. The weaknesses are so obvious and numerous nothing would ever get done if they were allowed centre stage.

Change mindsets. In every area, costs revenues, investments business models and so on there were entrenched biases which substituted for clear thinking. The Indian Railways managed to make its call centre into a revenue earner, something unique and unprecedented, one of those just-cant-be-done things that somehow India manages to do.

Momentum for change was sustained by fostering positive emotions. Nobody had to fear for their jobs or being humiliated. Simple things like providing laptops, cell phones, a car and domestic help to managers went a long way to energize them and soften the call of the private sector. Bonuses and rewards were handed out liberally.

By focusing on results, changes were seen to completion. This required patience, skilful handling of people, willingness to back away, being prompt to apologize when stepping on toes, and generally trusting that your people will do a great job when they are not fearful or humiliated.

The results are well known; the Railways turnaround is one of contemporary India’s great success stories.

The book is of great value for anybody trying to understand how to effect change in India. Perhaps even in other environments, offering a creative alternative instead of the slash costs, fire people and outsource everything approach that is so popular. Anybody connected with management, administrations or organizations will find value in this book. It is also a catalyst for creative thinking, improving performance and innovative approaches to seemingly intractable situations.

V. Nilakant and S. Ramnarayan have turned out a readable, useful and pertinent book for our changing times. They have not ignored the many problems that still dog the Railways, most importantly the stunning lack of passenger conveniences. However, given the situation in 2001 when the Railways were becoming an irrelevant and much disliked dinosaur, and what they have achieved till now, let us too focus on the positives and give three hopeful cheers for the future.

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