Sunday, November 25, 2007

Pasta panic and the future of the planet

An article 'Pasta Panic' in Fortune sparked this realisation .

Basically pasta prices have shot up due to rising wheat prices . Wheat prices have gone up for various reasons (listed in no particular order ) :
- demand for wheat has increased
- Australia - one of the largest (estwhile?) wheat producers has had 2 harvests in a row ravaged by drought
-A greater proprotion of agricultural land across the world has shifted to crops for fuel ( corn for ethanol , soy for biodiesel ) . This is likely to impact other agricultural products in future too.

What does this have to do with the future of the planet ?

The earth has substantial resources which it has given generously to all it's inhabitants - so far .
Excessive consumption of fossil fuels , other natural resources + environment insensitive to environment damaging activities for decades continue to impact the equilibrium of the planet. The earth is now telling us clearly that it's resources are linked and will not be available for reckless consumption . Mankind cannot irresponsibly consume one resource and then move to the next .Case in point being -wheat. To cope with the ever growing demand for and ever increasing prices of fuel - we ( as in mankind ) have experimented with crops for fuel . For a while it seemed like a great solution because it could be created (unlike fossil fuels which we can only find ) . Crops for fuel pose their own challenges :

- shift from producing food crops to crops for fuel - driving up food prices
- Affecting the ecology of the region ( monocultures visavis a more diverse and rich ecosystem)
- Water consumption

2 important resources - fuel and water - which are indispensible for mankind . Linked inextricably. Even while grappling with the implications of this it's tough not to marvel at the beauty and elegant underlying order of the universe.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Infrastructure growth enabled by reduced investment

Either news on TV is getting bizarre or the world is ( or more likely both ) .

Watched a news item on NDTV yesterday where the reporter was speaking to some govt official in Bangalore about the infrastructure in Bangalore or rather the absence of it . Even those who make infrequent visits to the city can attest to the chaos that prevails due to the lack of even the most basic of infrastructures - roads . With a virtually non-existent public transport most people have no option but to buy a vehicle to commute .

Coming back to the news item . The govt official said " We have to improve the infrastructure . Otherwise new investments will not come into Bangalore " Wow ! Citizens of Bangalore should be thankful that the prospect of new investments slowing down is finally rousing the govt administration from it's slumber . The quality of life of the millions of residents of the city is apparently not reason enough for the govt to improve the infrastructure. Then the official droned " We are building helipads so that VVIPS can take a helicopter from the airport into the city and they don't have to waste time " . What about the millions of people who have to commute daily on the city's non-existent roads ?
It would be too much to expect that people who display such quality of thought may have even considered what a waste of fuel it will mean to increase air traffic by encouraging helicopter usage .
The general idea seems to be to have traffic at different levels of the atmosphere starting from the ground level . And label it ' progress' .
There would be many who may choose to see this as a victory of sorts for business .That reduced investments have at last and at least prompted a lethargic administration into some action .We can't afford for our cities to improve only for the sake of fresh business investment or imagery. Is the quality (and often duration ) of lives of it's residents not reason enough ?

Injustice taken to a new low

Evidence that material wealth of a country is no sign of evolution . It seems from cases like this that material wealth serves to mask the repressive and cruel mind set of an important section of the society .
It's hard to imagine any other part of the world where cruelty of this nature and magnitude can be blatantly inflicted by the judiciary.
Pl raise your voice in protest . Write in to relevant media to voice your views on this case.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Letter to Fedex

text of a letter sent to Fedex India .
Dear Fedex representative ,

This is with ref to our telecon today .

We are an account holder with Fedex . For every parcel sent we get a separate , 2 page invoice .
I understand post our telecon that the invoices are raised on weekly basis .This is resulting in excessive documentation , wastage of physical resources , time and cost .

All other couriers raise monthly invoices .In 2 pages entire month’s details get listed with approx 30-50 parcel details .Whereas Fedex sends a 2 page invoice even if only one parcel was sent .
This practice alone results in :

- Wastage of paper
- cost of couriering an invoice each week .
- The wastage of energy and human resources in that envelope getting delivered and
received ( fuel consumed to transport the document , human effort involved )
- Then we have to keep track of multiple invoices , send a cheque . Starting the reverse chain of courier – again with wastage of physical and human resources.

All of this is unnecessary , damaging to the environment as well as consuming excessive human resources in terms of time and efforts .

Non-document parcels –Fedex insists on 8 copies of invoice !!!! That’s 6 too many .This is an environmental hazard !!

We urge Fedex India to urgently relook at this processes and change them to be sensitive to the environment as well it’s customers .

Frankly , this sort of thoughtless wastage could have been understood if the company was a small courier company .But it is incomprehensible when it comes from a large corporation like Fedex which is said to a leader in the courier business .

One would ,in fact, expect a company like Fedex to take a leadership stance and set an inspiring example of environment friendly practices .

Just because something is not captured in an invoice does not mean that it involves no cost or consumption of resources .Neither should a practice be perpetuated simply because ‘ we’ve always done it that way or this comes to us from our Head Office or all our computer systems are based on this logic currently ' .

I hope you will take this matter up with concerned people at your office and change the processes suitably .

Monday, November 12, 2007


Visited a store in Bombay which is a cross between a grocery and a supermarket . Formerly this store used to stock a range that was quite average - with neither depth nor breadth . With the advent of large industrial groups making a serious foray into food retailing this chain of stores seems to have gone back to the drawing board . Now , they stock a wide range of non-Indian cuisine ingredients - Italian , Thai , Japanese , a whole section dedicated to wines . As well as a focused selection of fruits and vegetables that would complement these cuisines. It's a good response as a business as well as for the consumer . We could do without yet another store carrying the same range of products . And we can do with a store where one can be reasonably sure of finding a good selection of products for other cuisines .

From the earlier visits to this store I remembered that they have a peculiar practice that the security guard at the exit would insist on the receipt and stamp it " paid " . For some reason a lot of the supermarket type stores in Bombay seem to have this practice . On that day I found the store manager and asked him the reason for this procedure . His explanation was that 'if you need to return / exchange something then we need the bill which is confirmed as being paid ' . Fair enough . I asked the manager if that's the objective why not make the cashier stamp the bill as 'paid' ? Only the cashier can confirm whether the bill was paid or not . How will the security guard know whether the bill was paid or how many items were paid for ?
Normal consumer behaviour is that when one gets the receipt it is put into the wallet or bag . And the focus is then on the balancing act of holding the various bags . With this tight-rope act in full progress one reaches the door and is asked to stop and retreive the receipt . Most papers follow Murphy's law . Or sink to the bottom of the bag not unlike the Titanic in the Atlantic Ocean .The consumer will eventually locate the receipt only to have it stamped 'paid' by someone who has no basis to know whether the payment was made or to what extent .

Faced with stuff that flies in the face of common sense I tend to be persistent . Idea being that hopefully the individual / business will relook at the process /action and make a change . The response of the manager was interesting .The logic of what was being presented to him was undeniable . At the same time the idea of changing a simple process seemed quite unthinkable .

Often organisations have some processes that serve no purpose . These could be procedures that involve the customer directly or backend processes that the customer does not experience or witness and sometimes is not impacted at all by it . These are the process equivalents of a vestigial organ . These can still be endured as while they do no good they don't inconvenience either . Processes that serve no purpose and actively inconvenience the customer need to be scrutinised and done away with .

The reaction of the manager was symptomatic of the inside-out view that businesses often tend to develop ( in varying degrees ) .
Take a few minutes to introspect whether your business has the equivalent of ' security guard stamps the receipt paid ' . Better still - ask your customers !

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Global business

For companies that truly have a vision of being global , the expansion of human minds and hearts is more than global expansion...A global business is a business - whether worldwide or not - that has a vision for questing towards wholeness - for itself , for the people within it and the world at large

Barbara Shipka

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Dead wood

Yesterday I happened to watch a news item on a business channel re how the Indian garment industry is coping with the strong Rupee . It profiled one of the large garment companies of India and included an interview with the MD of the company.

The stated strategy of the company is :

- to reduce the low margin products

- to enter the Indian retail sector possibly as a franchisee of one of their client brands ( a brand of European origin )*

Nothing radical about either approach. Most conventional companies would adopt the approach to reduce very low margin products . And with India being touted as an strong , growing market a lot of companies are seeking to enter the Indian market across various categories. An international brand seeking to enter Indian retail would feel comfortable to have a partner they know . A common approach is to ally with someone you already know. In this case a supplier of garments will be the partner to enter retail (whether the company has the skills or more importantly the mindset is perhaps a secondary consideration ) .

* I suspect that the European company may have been looking to enter the Indian market . And thought of joining hands with an existing supplier . It may be more of a timing of the sequence of events rather than a planned strategy on part of this Indian garment company .

What was appalling was the manner in which the MD spoke about the reducing of the low margin business . The footage showed workers in the factory . Then zooms in the MD saying 'over the years we have accumulated dead wood which we have to / will reduce ' . The "dead wood" being the 3000 people who stand to lose their jobs . Clearly the man has a lot of respect for the people who work in his various factories .

In several cases it happens that one MD/CEO or several, successive CEOs make decisions . And someone , someday has to deal with the consequences in a changed context . In this case this MD has been the one at the helm all along . So any 'dead wood' is his creation . Yet he blithely spoke about people as "dead wood" as though they were washed on the shores of his company by some tsunami.

If I was interviewing this MD the question to him would have been " Your business approach all these years has been to compete largely on price . You followed the no-brainer strategy of volume as the means build your business . If you had built a business based on value (and values !) the margins would have been higher and the business would have been able to withstand the impact of a strong rupee . Why refer to hard working people as 'dead wood' when in fact the origin of the problem lies to a large extent in your approach to business ? And now 3000 people will face the consequences of your quality of thought. "

As someone who's been in the clothing business for several years I have seen the manufacturing end of the business quite closely . Even in the best factories in India the work is demanding - physically and mentally .

The rise of the Rupee has hit the clothing industry in India . Thousands have lost their jobs . Especially hit are the smaller companies . What would be the plight of a worker who's been diligently working on his/her job only to find one day that the job no longer exists ? I wonder if they can even comprehend the reasons . ' Rupee has become strong .' What would this mean to someone who has seen only one currency all his/her life - the Rupee ?

Larger companies have the possibility and more importantly the responsibility to enable their stakeholders to tide through the challenge . This could be done in a variety and combination of ways - for a temporary period the larger margin businesses can subsidize the low margin business which can be done at cost prices if necessary for a while , explore other markets , sell domestically , offer value added products / services which will fetch higher margins . To resort to layoffs at the first touch of pressure is irresponsible .

The wider issue is the very basis of business which forms the stated and unstated philosophy of most companies . Profit is pursued as the sacred end which justifies all means .Business is esentially a human activity . The core of business should be respectful of the people involved .

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Start with denial

Visited a not so small bookstore in my neighborhood today . We sometimes buy office supplies from this store . The store labels all products for barcode and price . The labels they use have adhesive that could bond wood to steel . When taken off or rather when one attempts to take them off one of the following consequences is guaranteed :
- the base material (if paper) gets torn
- if it does get removed it leaves a clear mark to 'mark' it's presence
- the label gets only partially removed
( products spared this fate are those where the price tag is on the external packaging which is to be discarded on purchase )
A few times my colleague and me have mentioned about this problem to store staff . There has been no change whatsoever . Like a lot of retail stores it is highly possible that the person who receives the feedback does not do much about it . More likely that there is no mechanism for feedback to be solicited and acted upon .
Today , I requested to speak with the Manager of the store . Met the manager and mentioned to him about this persistent problem with the labels. His response was to first say that 'it's not a problem ' . When I insisted it was - the response changed to ' all labels are like that ' implying that there's not much he can do about it . I explained to him that this is not the case with other book stores . Then he said something to the effect that they are or will experiment to change the label quality . No apology , no attempt to understand the inconvenience caused by this seemingly small problem . This entire exchange was extremely courteous .
This evoked a sense of deja vu . A large number of companies (B2B and B2C) function this way when faced with a complaint from a customer. Start with denial and move to rationalising it if the denial does not do away with the complaint . All along be polite , courteous .And as the consumer walks out of the store proceed to protect and perpetuate status quo through inaction .