Saturday, April 4, 2015

Growth and quality consciousness

Indian automobile market was ruled by just two brands, Fiat and Ambassador, till Suzuki motors brought in a car known as 'Maruti 800' sometimes in 1980's. Around 1977, I had taken delivery of a brand new Ambassador car, that had already done 2000 Km on road. This was because my car was driven by road from Kolkata all the way to Pune before delivery. The car dealers had never heard of those monster car carrying trucks in those days. Any way, after I started using the car, in about three weeks, the gears started slipping automatically, when car was in third gear, to neutral. Obviously, this was not acceptable and I had to return the car to the dealer with a complaint. What the dealer told me was really surprising; he said that almost 70% of the new cars have this problem. We have complained to the manufacturer, but they have not taken any action. Then in another month or so, the rear leaf springs became quite flat and gave way and I had to change them.

Compare this with the cars that are sold in India today. Most of them are so well built that the owner does not even have to open the bonnet of his car. All he needs to do is check tyre air pressure and fill the tank with fuel. It is true that the cars of today are built with modern technology no doubt. But that is not the only reason. The main reason is the greater amount of quality consciousness and policy of zero defect, the car manufacturers follow today.No wonder that the car production has zoomed from a paltry figure of 32000 per annum to more than 3.5 Million. 

When I ran my manufacturing business, I had to purchase on regular basis fasteners (or screws and nuts in simple language.) My supplier, always had two types available. One was as per Indian standards and the other was known as “Chalu” type. It is this second one, that was very interesting, because it would cost at least 30% lower than the standard one. There used to be no guarantee whatsoever for “Chalu” type. The screws would be undersize, nuts would start slipping, when being tightened. The slot in the head of the screw missing. Obviously, the “Chalu” materials were all from factory rejected stuff, which happens in any industrial product manufacture. What stumped me was that the manufacturer openly sold this rejected stuff as “Chalu” at lower cost and there were distributors, sellers and above all buyers for that.

Maintaining quality of products is primarily the concern of a manufacturer. But aren't the consumers also are supposed to be conscious about quality, when they buy the stuff ? Quality can not be said to be owned only by the producers. It is everyone's responsibility to adhere to quality standards.  

Till information technology industry came up in India, service industry had not even heard such words as maintenance of quality. Take service providers like banks, transport, insurance or even postal department. In the past none of these had any standards to which they would function. Take simple task like clearing of outstation cheques by banks. I remember having waited for more than three weeks to receive payment for an out station cheque. Department of Posts could not guarantee, when a letter will reach the destination.

The attitude of an average Indian towards quality can be summarised in two words “ Chalata hai.” To translate exact meaning of these two words is a pretty tough task. It means, “ Well! Tolerate! Things like this keep happening all the time, we have to accept it, otherwise we wont get anything at all. We have to tolerate and somehow manage with this thing only.”

With advent of IT industry in India, which mainly catered to US organizations, quality came to be accepted as norm of the service industry. The developed software or the call center type service provided, had to have, in built quality assurance to standards agreed beforehand. This slowly changed the expectations of the users of services, even in India. Service providers have to adhere to quality standards, that they have promised. Tolerance or “Chalta Hai” was no longer acceptable.

Health sector, is another such service sector, where quality of service is most important. Unfortunately, Indian health services fail to provide good quality service. Similar is the case of Education sector, where quality of education provided is going down the drain. One single factor that perhaps is responsible for this journey is abolition of examinations up to eighth grade. Since everyone gets promoted, no one bothers whether the students have learned, what is required. Poor availability of finance is another major hindrance.

The point, I want to make is that quality assurance can not be a responsibility of a single factor in a system. In case of commodities it does not rest only with those who make them, but also on who distribute them, who make them available, store and sell and finally even those who use them.

Or let us consider a school, if it has to maintain the quality or standard of education, it can not be the sole responsibility of the head master, but rather of all the stakeholders involved, like teachers, administration, finance providers to school and finally parents of students, all within the system. Unless all of them agree to ownership of quality, the school can never hope to improve.

It can be said that accepting to adhere to certain standard or quality, within a system, is usually the first step towards implementing a desire to improve or grow. The truth of the matter is that real growth and improvement and acceptance of quality standards, go together and one can not be separated from the other.

5th April 2015

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