Saturday, February 9, 2013

Handling complexity: What India really contributes

It has been quite some years since I spoke about this, but I think my experience with Konkan Railway needs to have a wider exposure.  This article is partly based on something I wrote in a private discussion group among my IIT friends on Facebook.

The objective of this article is to share my optimism about India and the way we do things here. I have a lot of optimism about Indians and the way we work. Of course there were a lot of scoundrels and calamities on the way but I tend to always see the full portion of the half-empty glass.

Let me stick to one example. I worked quite closely with Konkan Railway, so in one sense I could be biased. But on the other hand, I could be revealing some insights. I think Konkan Railway as a project has been discussed threadbare to the point of almost disbelief.

So I wont go there.

Let me tell you about my experience when designing the headquarters. Initially, I too was hesitant when I got the job -- designing their headquarters; that too in just 45 days from inception to handing over was a challenge to anyone and I was just too young (27 years). I was amazed that it got done and the thought struck me how details sometimes are so different from helicopter-views.

I had to contend with 15 railwaymen -- many of them picked out of retirement and brought back into service. All of them cranky in their way, very demanding; and tough to please. I thought they would create a hurdle in the project's management. They didn't. In retrospect, and when I later on married my experience in IT and my readings in management (Mythical Man Month, for example) these old fogies will run circles and ellipses around any project management guru.

They are the unspoken heroes and their way of working was amazing. I saw, for example, the Konkan Railway system of managing files. They called it a "single-file" system. Everything pertaining to a project went into one file and that was circulated around. It was bulky, clumsy but it worked charmingly well. Everyone who had to take a decision got a complete holistic view of what was going on. Most of the time, they did not write separate reports: Many officials would just turn over a paper, and write their comments on the back of the page; so one got to read the file in two directions: One in the forward direction, and one by looking at the reverse side of the pages for the decisions and recommendations

(A method that I have seen another friend of mine, Dr. Nobhojit Roy, use for his diaries. I think talking about Dr. Roy's ways of working will take a lot of effort and space. Let me not digress here)

They had several other ways of working. For example; Nobody lifted their intercom phone. It was always on speaker-phone. Anybody in the cabin would be able to overhear what was going on. I quickly realized that they wanted everyone to hear.

There are many other points that I noticed in the way they worked:

The interior design did not ask for a clock. Instead they had "countdown" counter that read out the number of days left for the project to be completed.  When the staff trooped in for work each day, the counter will boldly indicate the number and prime them.

Each cabin had a mini traffic signal outside the door: Red indicated that the person inside was really busy and should not be disturbed. Amber to indicate that please knock and then enter. And Green was to just breeze in unasked if you wanted to meet the person inside.

Many years later, I was teaching MIS at a management institute, and I realized how naive many of the Western approaches were. Some Japanese consultants were visiting the interior when it was being constructed; and they refused to believe that the entire thing would be over in the total stipulated time of 45 days. It was 15,000 square-feet with all kinds of issues, spaces, requirements ... all in the middle of a working office. But it really did get done.

17 years later, Konkan Railway bought another floor in the same building and I did that one too -- equally speedily. In the meantime, Konkan Railway had stopped being a "corporation" (Initially it was on a BOT scheme, but later it was handed over the railways ... and yes, there are stereotypical imagery of the "railways") So indeed, the new Konkan Railway was boring, bureaucratic and all that . But the new interior also was done quite fast.

And when I went to do the new interior, I was happy to notice that the 17 year old office interior I had designed was more or less being used using the same arrangement I had made. They even had replicated my modules in some other portions of that floor space.

On a side note, this project was the one of the first in my practice that utilized my own design software; TAD. I never made any drawings for this initially. I just plonked my computer with my software among the officers of Konkan Railway and quickly fleshed out the layout of the interior directly in the software. It was running on DOS those days. Those of you who are interested, can take a look at TAD here:  The second Konkan Railway interior, and indeed, every project done by SFA was developed around TAD.

So what is the point of this article? Indians solve really tough problems reasonably well. Konkan Railway is a project that has been admired and acknowledged all over the world. It did not come up in a vacuum  There were lots of complex detailing and handling of complex activities, such as this interior. They were also done admirably well. I think the biggest contribution that Indians make is the ability to work on the "holistic" instead of just being analytical (divide-and-conquer) when solving a problem. We offer the perfect foil to reductionism. I guess that many top organizations have realized that and they are quickly moving in to India to set up their R+D cells. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe ... they all have their research cells here to tap into the Indian way of handling problems.

I had the opportunity to visit Copenhagen and I was struck when someone pointed out to a group of 6 out in the street and remarked that there is a "crowd" out there.  They had a metro, a railway with two different kinds of trains if I mistake not, amazing road work, cycle-lanes and what not ... All that, and a crowd of 6.

I then remembered my work for the control-office building of Konkan Railway (which later on did not come up ... another story) As part of that exercise I got intimate with the working of the control offices of both western and central railway. I was given some numbers ; and those numbers flashed on my mind: Churchgate station alone handles the entire population of Denmark in two days. Huh! Hmmm... and they were talking of a crowd of 6.

This is not to deride and make a strawman of the Danish way of handling problems. Indians know how to join seemingly opposite points of view where the Western world use derivatives of the age old Greek method of the law of the excluded middle.  Lotfi Zadeh explains that aspect of Buddhism quite admirably, when he explains how he got onto fuzzy logic. My life tells me that not many Western approaches know how to work with the "synthesis". Not that they simply cannot solve complex problems at all. I've had other experiences with the Danish, and they have their own ways of working which also works admirably well.  I should write another article on my experience with using, beta-testing and writing documentation for Visual Prolog, quite an efficient and off-beat computer language developed in Denmark.

I just believe that the world has not yet recognized the way we Indians work, and I truly take pride in having being involved in some part of the new Indian workforce and methods of working. My company, SFA (Sabu Francis & Associates for short) grew up in this milieu. Hopefully, this way of working will be spread far and wide by those who had worked for SFA and have now spread out.