Last month, MBA students from Canada’s McGill University travelled to India to investigate business, culture and national competitiveness. Here one of them, Melanie Walsh, says that six-sigma management theory is thriving among the dabbawalas of Mumbai
TEN students stand on the would-be shoulder of a road under construction. “One, two, three…” calls one student. There is a pause, then “four, five, six,” calls a second and everyone laughs at their own hesitation at crossing the street. Who gets priority? Some say the largest vehicle. However, small motorised rickshaws are bypassing trucks, busses move at different paces, and cars and taxis seem to be going where ever they want. Yet, pedestrians still cross between the cars without causing accidents or stopping the flow of traffic. Flow is perhaps the best word I have to describe India; everything is moving and growing in a seemingly chaotic manner, yet there must be some method to the madness because it is growing incredibly.
Invisible growth is a concept I heard a lot of while I was in India. The Indian economy is growing consistently, yet the outward signs of development—such as new skyscrapers, public transit, roads and other elements of infrastructure—are not apparent. Western-style development is obvious only in small pockets of gated and secured communities. The disparity between these enclosures and generally accessible India is amazing. In Mumbai for example, you look out the 15th story window of your five-star hotel and watch people going about their everyday lives in the adjacent slums.
What is behind this invisible growth? My answer is culture and work ethic. In my brief glimpse of a few Indian cities, I was overwhelmed by the welcoming people. It seemed we received heart-felt greetings of “Namaste” everywhere we visited. I was fortunate to be invited into the home of a family in New Delhi, where I was not allowed to escape without consuming a plethora of tasty homemade dishes and a nice cup of chai tea. Not only are people welcoming, but they are also service oriented and hard working. During my preparations for the trip, the management from hotels and bus companies went above and beyond to make sure everything went as smoothly as possible. Of course, once there nothing goes entirely as planned, but everyone was incredibly flexible.
In order to describe the work ethic I witnessed, I would like to share a short story of an Indian organisation that has developed over 100 years. Around 10 o’clock in the morning, a woman hands a well-used lunch bag to a man on a bike with a white paper hat. This man adds this package to the twenty other like it tied to his bicycle and heads towards the closest big train station. Once at the station, he is joined by about 50 others carrying similar loads. In a seemingly chaotic process, all lunch boxes are sorted into separate piles and reloaded onto new bicycles to be distributed to people in all corners of Mumbai. Without knowing what six sigma is, the dabbawalas of Mumbai have achieved this status. I am told that only one out of 16m lunches is wrongly delivered.
The most enduring moment was a visit to a school in the slums of Mumbai where students supported by Nanhi Kali, a charitable foundation providing education opportunities for the poor, were studying. A little boy sat on his own, in the midst of all the chaos of 30 university students visiting his tiny classroom, and remained absorbed in his schoolwork. There is no question he was driven to learn. All that was lacking were the resources. The desire and analytical skills are present and as the economy grows so too will its infrastructure. If we can offer anything, then it is support for strategies that make sure as few people as possible fall through the cracks
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