Thursday, April 10, 2008

Learning From Our Champions

Shyam Ponappa / July 25, 2005

Our reforms need the magic of project management with quality standards

India's competitiveness

The three key factors that make countries more competitive, according to the IMD, a leading business school in Switzerland, are:

- A stable and predictable legislative environment
- A flexible and resilient economic structure
- Good infrastructure.

In India, we have some of the IMD’s second factor, very little of the first, and consequently, not at all enough of the third. At least we now agree that inadequate infrastructure is a major impediment to our productivity and prosperity.

The question is: how do we get that infrastructure? For that, we need to enable successful investment in infrastructure, which means getting the first factor in place.

This is easy in theory: develop integrated laws, rules, procedures/processes, and institutions, i.e., systems for the long term, and do not resort to arbitrary solutions outside this policy framework.

Yet, such steps as our governments have taken since 1991 have been fitful and episodic, not a comprehensive, systematic effort to orchestrate the establishment of an enabling, stable environment.

Consequently, in telecommunications, although we have a large number of new lines, we also have confused regulations and disorder; in energy, desperate shortages exist despite overwhelming demand and the abundance of fuel sources (e.g. coal, gas, water, sun). Upshot: we could, as before, do very much better.

We have this gulf between desired ends and how to set about achieving them. This may be for reasons of history, i.e. the colonial legacy with its revenue-extracting bias, inexperience with developing good systems through democratic processes, (or as an excuse for that reason) a certain lack of competence, or simply fractious, early-stage opportunism and political accommodation.

But: look at our champions

In contrast with our inadequacies in infrastructure, consider our strengths in the knowledge economy, some manufactured products, and by all accounts, the Delhi Metro. It is our knowledge, product and service champions who go beyond the jugaad, the short-term quick fix. What characteristics do these enterprises and sectors share?

One is organising and orchestrating people’s efforts. They harness collective human endeavour towards well-defined goals using orthodox project management, i.e. President APJ Abdul Kalam’s “mission mode” exhortation. In stark contrast, getting anything done with the rest of us is like trying to herd cats.

Another is that these enterprises transcend the limitations of shoddy quality standards.

Third, they are blessed with constructive laws and regulations, or at the very least, the absence of constraints. It is not that they have prospered despite government, but that government has created or enabled favourable environments.

Examples are the communications facilities for IT companies making service exports possible, or their tax breaks. We simply have not extended these in a systematic way to other sectors in India, where we feel victims of a shoddy system.

How do individuals/organisations break out of shoddy systems? Perhaps when they stop being heedless passengers in a self-perpetuating process. Instead, they define their goals, and then organise their efforts and resources to achieve them to time and quality standards (the project management thing) in an enabled environment.

The importance of quality

Another weakness we must slough off is our willingness to settle for less because of low expectations and standards, even self-esteem (“we are like that only”).

Take telecommunications: as a cousin in rural Karnataka put it, at least we can talk on the phone now when there is a dial tone! So we are satisfied with the poor quality of lines that render email theoretically feasible, but as I found, out of reach in reality. My brother has two fixed phone lines and a mobile phone.
This makes for great statistics, but the line quality is not good enough for Internet connection, even when the erratic electric supply is available. Out there we never had reliable electricity supply; so generators have been a way of life for those who could afford them.

The many who cannot are consigned to lamplight and all that it means in terms of constraints on access to information through reading, using computers, watching television, etc.

Project management: an essential skill

One of the most useful “continuing education” courses I had to attend as a young management consultant in America was a short course on project management. It was an epiphany, because project management incorporates such universal concepts and techniques that I marvel that is not part of everyone’s required basic education.

It is arguably as fundamental as the 3 Rs: how to define goals, then plan and manage resources and activities to achieve them, on time and to quality. Also, like a computer or spreadsheet, it is simple for elementary purposes as the fundamentals are straightforward, while providing infinite scope for mastery.

Project management is not just for the private sector; it is absolutely essential for policies and laws. We can then stop confusing aspirational statements with having achieved those ends. Stop expecting unrealistic laws or regulations or governance to produce the desired results by some miracle, under some short-lived “scheme” or other.

Instead, embrace the disciplines of project management with realistic goal setting for our aims, policies, laws, and regulations. Use it as the everyday process to plan and work to a schedule to achieve these results to quality standards that are good, while planning for future demand with growth.

Some may say that this is all old hat, as our administrators already use project management and their training incorporates it. But I mean much more than the limited context of engineering, or for just the subordinates.

It can only work starting from the top, driving our legislation and regulation, e.g., in power and transportation, so that our patchwork approach is replaced by a comprehensive, seamless process, with no deferment of difficult decisions intrinsic to the quality of a project in its entirety.

So please, policy makers, take a leaf out of the books of our champions. Imagine if our PMO and the rest of government from its position of leadership used project management to prioritise and coordinate activities, with the right legislative, financial and technological disciplines.

Goal-oriented project management practices could spread throughout our political economy. In 10-15 years, we could have an enabled environment. Instead of yearning for China’s level of infrastructure, we could build our own.

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