Saturday, November 17, 2007

Where does your loyalty lie?

Whenever I travel, I try to strike up a conversation with my fellow passengers. This is a great opportunity to meet diverse people, learn new things and have interesting discussions. On a recent flight I was talking to a fellow passenger about a variety of interesting topics. When the topic of consultants/contractors came, he said that he hated consultants. When I asked why, he said that they are not loyal to their clients. That really got me thinking about loyalty.

I, for one, always feel that consultants when working for their clients and should be loyal to the clients. I strongly believe in establishing relationships. One cannot build good, long standing relationships by not looking after the client's interests. As long as I am working for a client, I am their employee and it is my duty to align myself with their organizational strategy.

What is loyalty? Who is loyal to whom? Who should be loyal to whom?

Loyalty does not mean that an employees should work for only one employer for all their working life. An employee can be loyal to an employer as long as he/she is employed by that employer. The same holds true for consultants. Just because consultants switch clients doesn't mean that they are not loyal to their clients.

Smart employees are loyal to no one but themselves and their careers. It is in the best interest of an organization to make sure that an employee's career goals are aligned with its own strategy and goals. That creates a win-win situation. This creates loyalty from both ends: the organization is loyal to the employee, and the employee is loyal to the organization.

How does an organization ensure loyalty? The answer lies in building relationships.

Organizations need to build a trusting relationship with their employees, and the employees will show their loyalty in response. Some short-sighted organizations believe that training and nurturing employees will result in the employees jumping ship. To the contrary, emphasizing employee growth ensures an organization's growth. As employees grow, organizations grow. Of courses, you will lose some talent, but you get to gain a lot more in terms of improved core competencies as well as loyalty.

Another aspect that ensures loyalty is transparency. How do employees see the value they are creating or adding? How are they affecting the bottom line? The more visibility they have, the more ownership they feel. The more ownership they feel, the more loyal they will be.

Gone are the days when one used to work for the same employer all their life. Gone are the days of blind lifetime loyalty. Job security, commitment, loyalty and lifetime employment used to define the Japanese labor culture. It is interesting to note the direction in which loyalty flowed: it was both ways. Recently, this culture has changed even in Japan, and personal goals are taking priority. Also, within organizations, meritocracy is reigning.

I feel that employees are always loyal to their employers, and that holds true for consultants too. Organizations that are loyal to their employees tend to retain their star employees, and grow with them.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

JFK taxi line and meetings

For once, my flight out of JFK seemed on time. The plane had arrived well in advance. All the passengers were in their seats, and the flight crew had locked the cabin door. So far, so good. My flight was to leave JFK at 7:15 PM and was supposed to arrive in Seattle 6 hours later. Our captain gets on the PA and announces that there is a good tail wind and we will make it to Seattle in 5 hours and 40 mins!! Wow, imagine my excitement. Forget being late, we are going to be home early! That put a grin on everyone's face.

The plane pulls out of the terminal on time and off we go onto the taxi way. I switched off my phone and my laptop. The plane taxis for about 5 mins and stops. Our captain comes on the PA and announces that he is going to turn the engines off to conserve energy and instructs that it is OK to use our electronic devices. He then announces that we are number 28 in line, and will take off shortly.

To make the story short, we take off at 8:40 PM and arrive in Seattle 40 mins late.

The main reason was that flights from morning started slipping and we, at the end of the day, ended up slipping way out. This reminded me of some of the days at the office. Almost every meeting that I attend starts to slip by a few mins. This starts to accumulate, especially if there are a few common participants, and finally the meetings in the afternoon are slipping by 30 mins or more.

Everybody complains that meetings are counter productive. There is some element of truth in this statement. The main reason being the way the meetings are run. Efficiently run meetings are always short and very productive.

Here is a nice article on Google's Marissa Mayer's philosophy on running efficient meetings. There is nothing earth shattering in her techniques. We all know that having a well published agenda goes a long way in running efficient meetings. What I liked most was the idea of projecting a countdown clock to remind everyone of the time left. All this assumes that the leader sticks to the clock. The second idea that I liked was the transcription. It would be great to see what the note taker is writing down. It is not always possible to have multiple projectors in a room, but this is a great idea. Saves a lot of time and keeps the meeting rolling along.

I have been to several meetings where no one knows what the agenda is. Everyone just lands up in the room because they were invited. Always have an agenda and publish it in advance so the audience knows what the meeting is about.

Meeting facilitation is the key to a successful meeting. A strong leader should direct the attendees towards the topics on the agenda and make sure that they don't digress. There are several players in a meeting:

- The leader (facilitator)
- Time keeper
- Note taker

The leader plays several roles here. The leader needs to make sure that the agenda is covered in totality, and everyone follows the agenda. The leader should also make sure that everyone in the room gets to share their thoughts. The leader should also summarize whenever a significant point/decision is made, or whenever an agenda topic is closed. The leader also sets the tone of the meeting.

Try some of these tips and see how productive your meetings become.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Green Ganapathi

Every year we celebrate Ganesha Chaturthi and I make it a point to make my own Ganesha idol. The main reason being that I love creating it. I believe that it is a service to God when I put my skills and effort to craft the idol. It gives me great pleasure to create the idol and worship it on Ganesha Chaturthi.

I mostly use clay to model the idol, and since I don't bake the model, I paint it with a water based paint. My philosophy has always been to use the materials available in nature, and around us. I say that I mostly use clay because I use other materials (paper, cardboard, wire) to provide the skeleton to the model and hold it together. This is especially true for the four hands as well as the trunk.

The Hindu scriptures say that Goddess Parvathi created Ganesha out of the dirt (saffron paste) off her body. In order to follow a similar route, some say that we should only create the idol out of clay (earth, sand, dirt, etc.). I have always used clay to create my idols. I love the texture and pliable nature of clay. I love working with clay.

And, at the time of immersion, it is fitting that we give back to nature, what came from nature. Clay lets me accomplish this.

Nowadays, people have started using all kinds of materials to create the Ganesha idol. The most common one being plaster-of-paris. First, plaster-of-paris is not a naturally occurring material. Second, plaster-of-paris does not disintegrate easily when immersed in water. Plaster-of-paris is not a nature friendly material. To top it, most manufacturers use oil or latex based paints to obtain a glossy look. Even these are not environment friendly, and are known to harm fish and other marine life.

Since the practice is always to immerse the idol back into water after the pooja, why not make the idol out of the materials we find in riverbeds or lakes: Clay.

Always buy or create idols made of clay, and water based natural paints. Let lord Ganesha help keep this planet green.

OM Sri Ganeshaya Namaha.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Child labor?

Last week, while strolling on a street in Waikiki, I saw several street performers entertaining passers by. Here is a rough estimate of number of onlookers flocking around the performers, at the time I was there:

Caricature artist - 0
Basketball man (guy performing basketball tricks) - 25
Charcoal portrait artist - 8
Golden statue dude (guy posing as a golden statue) - 10
Ukulele player - 0
Karaoke girl (girl singing pop songs on a karaoke machine) - 18
Guitar player - 0
At first glance, everything seems in balance. Not a lot of general public cares for a guy playing the ukulele or shredding the guitar on the streets. These need very specific audience. Same goes true for the caricature artist.
The charcoal dude was doing an awesome job, and hence people were flocking to watch him work (many were waiting their turn). The basketball man was attracting a huge crowd by yapping a lot (and doing a few real cool tricks).
What struck me was the fact that people were watching a young girl (maybe 8-10 yrs old) singing while her parents were sitting around and collecting money (pic above). This, for me, is child labor. We talk a lot about what happens in China and other countries, and here we were, encouraging a little girl (and her parents) to sing for us. The girl should have been playing with her friends in the beach on that pleasant evening. Instead, she was 'working' for her parents. What a pity.

BTW, I just took a few pics and walked away as soon as possible. I, for one, did not want to encourage this.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Pluralistic ignorance

I was walking towards the baggage claim area in the Orange county airport during one of my business trips. People from my flight were walking towards the baggage claim area, while others were rushing towards the terminals to catch their flights. I saw a woman, a few paces ahead of me, unknowingly drop her boarding pass. She was rushing towards her terminal, just like everyone else. There must have been about 5-6 people between me and the woman. I assume most of them saw what happened, but no one bothered to do anything. I, too, passed the boarding pass on the floor, and for some reason it flashed that something was wrong. I stopped to pick up the pass, and ran back and gave it to her.

On the way out, I was thinking about what happened. I knew that something was wrong in the whole scene, but could not put my finger on it. Until, I read about the pluralistic ignorance at the Media Studies. This article explained exactly what happened in the airport the other day.

We see such acts daily. During a project meeting, you see that some things need to be taken care of, and mention it. Everyone nods in agreement, but nothing is done. Why? Everybody in the room thought that the other person would pick up the ball. That is why we need to assign specific action items to individuals.

I specifically remember of seeing a video as a child about what to do in case of an emergency. Imagine an accident scene and a man is lying unconscious on the road. On lookers surround the accident scene. You see that the man needs medical attention and scream "Somebody call 911" or "Can someone get a fresh towel?". Guess what happens? Nothing. Same reason. Everybody is assuming that the other person is going to respond. So, the video specifically suggests that in these situations, you should point at a random person (an adult) and scream orders. "You, call 911 immediately". That will get things done since there is no plurality. Orders are aimed at an individual, and everyone is watching how you react. So, you better react and get things done.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier

A great book on the wonderful world of branding. It is a small book which makes it a quick read. He presents the topic in a innovative way that makes it a pleasure to read. In fact, Marty has created a brand for himself (branded himself) with the signature of the book. His style (typography, layout, images, etc.) is unique and very visual.

I was recently involved in a project of creating a logo for a company. We were trying to put reason behind the logo, and were treating the logo as the brand. First of all, this book demystifies the logo. "A brand is not a logo or a corporate identity system or a product. A brand is not what you say it is. A brand is what they say it is". Wow, how true it is. Nobody describes the logo or explains the reasoning behind their branding. It is how the audience perceives it.

He also says that in order to differentiate yourself (or your company), you should answer these three questions:
who are you?
what do you do?
why does it matter?
The last question is where most people stumble. This is a powerful concept which applies to both companies as well as individuals. Why does it matter? Why should I care? This aims at contribution. This reminds me of Guy Kawasaki's idea of answering the little man. Whenever you are about to do something or write something, imagine that there is a little guy on your shoulder who asks "so, what?". If you cannot answer him, then you are not contributing.

Here are some of the quotes and snippets from this book:
Brands should be charismatic and stand for what people want, be it joy, happiness, success, love, comfort,..

It takes a village to build a brand. Branding cannot be done in isolation. Everyone in the company should work towards creating a brand.

Innovation is what gives brands traction in the marketplace. Innovation needs creativity. Infuse and encourage creativity in organizations.

The 7 criteria for a good name:
1. Distinctiveness
2. Brevity
3. Appropriateness
4. Easy spelling and pronunciation
5. Likability
6. Extendability
7. Protectability

Logos are dead. Long live icons and avatars.If it's not innovative, it is not magic.

Avoid these three barriers to achieve full potential in web design:Technophobia, turfismo and featuritis

Focus groups were invented to FOCUS the research, not to BE the research.

Your business is not an entity. It is a living organism. So is your brand. Treat it so. Alignment is the basis of a living brand.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

What is your passion?

Did you know that people age faster in their retired life?
Did you know that people develop all kinds of (imaginary or not) ailments as soon as they retire?

Research has shown that the main reason for all this is the lack of purpose in life. Once a person retires and stops working, he looses a reason to get up in the morning, and go get something done. The other reason is boredom and depression. That is one of the reasons retirees look for part-time work in their retirement.

Without passion for something in life, it is hard to make a retired living.

What is retirement?

Earlier, people considered retirement once they reached a particular age. Retirement is considered once you have financial freedom. What we need to realize is that retirement can be boring and frustrating, if it is not properly thought out.

What would you do if you had financial freedom?

If you answer that question with something that you are not doing now, you are up for a boring retired life.

Who are you?

When you are asked who you are, you reply that you are a doctor or a professor or ... So, your profession defines you, especially for professional people. In a society where your profession defines you, it is hard to be retired. It is hard to lose one's identity.

When anyone asks one of my friends what he does, his answer is "I am a musician". "And, I just do database administration at ABC Corp just to pay my bills". That is an interesting way of putting things. Of course, it would have been a lot better if his passion could pay the bills too.

Without a passion, it is hard to pass time. If you are passionate about something, what keeps you from doing it now? Why are you waiting to be "retired" to do something that you love?

Pick your passion today, and start practicing retirement!

Thursday, May 03, 2007

With = Girl; What = Boy;

[with, if, not, where, be, when, your, her, we, should, she, and, me, myself, hers, was]

Did you know that these keywords are feminine? I didn't.

That was news to me. I just discovered Gender Genie and I posted some of my blogs into it. I seem to have a good mix of masculine as well as feminine writing.

What is interesting is the way the algorithm works. The algorithm is based on a research paper comparing the linguistic styles of males and females. I feel that there may be linguistic differences based on speech, but not based on the writings. They have compared writings from decades to draw conclusions. Formal writing, such as business writing or technical writing is generally neutral, and the same style is practised by both the genders. So, this research may have value when it comes to fictional writing. But, the gender genie has incorporated algorithms to interpret both fiction and non-fiction writings.

Post some of your writings and get a feel for what your style is.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Blogs, blogs, -- redux

Sometime ago I wrote about why I blog and why I read blogs. I touched upon the variety of reasons people blog.

I recently stumbled upon this presentation on 25 basic styles of blogging. It is a great presentation that throws light on what one can do on a blog. Also, it is a great presentation to watch.

So, pick one or more styles and start your own blog today!

Monday, April 30, 2007

Freeway community

Have you ever been in a situation when you are cruising on the freeway, and a 18-wheeler is trying to get into your lane? The truck is blinking its turn signal and waiting for you to pass. You notice that you are so close to his tail that you might as well let him get in front of you. So, you flash your headlights, and he glides into your lane. Once he is settled, he blinks his rear running lights to signal his appreciation.

Even though I am quite an aggressive driver on the road, I help out truckers all the time. I don't know why, but I always get a kick out of it when they say "thanks". And, if someone does not thank me, I curse under my breath and move on. I always anxiously look for the signal from the truck. I feel good when I see it. Maybe, that is why I do this. To feel good.

This whole short term shorthand communication between me and the truck somehow helps me to connect (even for a brief moment) with another person on the freeway. There is a sort of community on the freeway. CB radios used to enable this in the by gone days. Nowadays, nobody uses CBs but for truckers. Maybe, not even truckers use them.

Maybe, one day we will have some kind of (bar code?) readers on all cars. They will be able to read the adjacent cars' code and automatically connect to them. This will allow the freeway community to communicate as well as share things. Push a button and you will be talking to the driver in the car adjacent to you. You may be able to share a play list of songs from a fellow traveler. Your car may be able to access the auto analytics of the car in front of you and determine that the car is slowing down or even breaking down. This will help in avoiding accidents. Cops will be able to connect to a car's computer and instruct it to stop the car, avoiding the the whole chase scene.

Of course, the flip side of this is that we don't need to make our cars fancier. With all the global warming and the gas guzzlers, who needs to add more power hungry gizmos. We just need the basic mini car that runs on solar power.

We just have to wait and see what happens..

Paid services come with strings attached!!

Reading this blog by Don Dodge titled Free services come with strings attached, I am reminded of my struggle to get my web pages deleted from a TW RoadRunner server. I had an account with RoadRunner several years ago. Since they offered disk space for paying customers, I created and hosted my web site on their server. Once I moved out of Ohio, I cancelled my account with TW RoadRunner, and assumed (stupid me) that they would purge the accounts and web pages of expired/unpaid/cancelled/terminated accounts.

Boy, was I wrong. My web pages are still around on their server even after two years!!

Some of you might be saying "Hey, that's free web hosting for life. What are you crying about?"

Unfortunately, you cannot modify the pages, and you no longer have control over them. And, worst of all, it is a pain (so far) to get them to remove your pages. Their "tech support" doesn't seem to know how to purge web pages and accounts!

The only reason I want to get rid of my old pages is that several links on the page are stale, and I have pictures of "Our Home" which I no longer own. In order to be fair to the current owner, I cannot even modify the title to "Our former home".

This is a first hand lesson that once you post something on the Internet (even if it is on your own server) it gets a life of its own, and there is no way of bringing it back into the bottle.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Pumping on a swing - how to teach

Some kids learn how to pump on a swing at an early age, while some take a while. My daughter fell in the latter category. Just a few days ago I noticed someone at the local park trying to teach a child to pump on a swing. That is when I noticed how difficult it can be to teach it, especially if the child is not very co-operative. Then I remembered how I taught my daughter to pump.

Everyone who swings knows that you need to straighten your legs out on the forward motion, and bend your legs (and bunch up) on the way backwards. It is quite difficult to teach this to some kids. After several attempts at teaching, as well as demonstrations, I came up with a technique of encouraging the child to learn the motions of pumping without thinking about it. Here is how.

Pus the child on the swing a couple times and build momentum. Once that is done, walk to the front and face the child. Stand back and hold your hand up such that the kid's legs almost touch it (3" away) at the end of the forward stroke. Now, encourage the kid to lean back (on the forward stroke only) and try to touch your hand with her legs. And, obviously, tell the kid to sit up on the backward stroke. This trick did it for my daughter.

The key here is, they have a target to shoot for, and they will become sensitive to their actions and the reaction. They will start adjusting their posture and start sensing the changes in momentum. This is exactly what we intended. Once they get a hang of it, they will never forget it.

And you can kick back and enjoy the sun while they pump themselves on the swing. Not that pushing your kid on the swing is not fun...

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

New wine in an old bottle - redux

Kathy Sierra makes some smart observations on How to be an Expert. Lot of it makes sense. I agree with most of what she says about being able to become an expert by modifying how and what we practice.

Reading her last paragraph is what brought me back to my earlier post on learning to play the guitar. I agree that we can master activities that need the brain cells at any point in our life. But, where I differ is when other cells (muscles/organs) come into picture. Neurons can be created/linked at virtually any age. That is not so for other cells in our body. Human growth stops abruptly in our late teens to early 20s. So does our body's ability to be nimble and flexible. Anyone who started yoga at the age of 60 knows what I am talking about.

So, it is easy for one to learn new things and become experts at it as long as it just involves the brain (and maybe other organs that age well). It is not really true for things of physical nature.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Customer Service

When we visited India, we went to a local restaurant to have breakfast one day. We sat down and ordered a few items on the menu. The food comes to the table. I had also ordered bottled water (you should always carry your own bottle of water or order bottled water when you travel) to drink. We start to eat, and after a few mins, a small cockroach (yikes) emerges from the basket containing the nan. I immediately summon the waiter and before he arrives, the roach manages to run under the table. Thank god, no one at our table threw up.

Disgusted, we immediately get up to leave. I go to the manager to lodge a complaint and tell him how horrible the place is. And that we will never be setting foot in this restaurant. I was expecting a sincere apology, and an explanation for what happened.

Nope. I was grossly mistaken (I, like an idiot, expected a businessman to be managing the place).

He immediately calls our waiter and starts questioning him as to how much of each item we have eaten! I was about to raise a ruckus and make my anger known to all the customers (Not that they would have cared). But, I kept my cool to see what is going to unfold next. He proceeds to make some calculations and tells me that he is going to waive a percentage of the bill! At this point, I literally exploded and give him a piece of my mind. I told him to thank his stars that I was not going to complain to the food police (the main reason being, I didn't know where to find one). And, I paid him for only the bottle of water that I had bought (assuming it was not contaminated).

What would have happened if the manager had sincerely apologised, and offered to swallow the tab? Of course, this is an extreme situation (hygiene related) and nothing would have made me visit the place again. But, I would have left the place with a good opinion. The manager could have assured me that this was a freak case, and he will take care of the situation and clean things up. His attitude showed that he didn't care for his customers. He didn't want to build long term relations with his customers.

That was customer service in India. Not to generalize it, but I have seen this kind of behavior one too many times.

Reading Joel's blog on customer service, sparked my memory of this episode. Joel does a great job of listing what one needs to do to provide remarkable customer service. Most steps pertain to the software industry, but the gist of it applies to all things in general.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The $30 motel room puzzle

Three travelers came to a motel and decide to share one room. The clerk registered them for $30. Each of the travelers pitched in $10. After a bit, the clerk realized that the special rate for that day was $25, so he gave the bellhop $5 and told him to take it to the travelers. On his way to the room, the bellhop reasoned that he couldn't split $5 three ways, so he'd just return $3 to the travelers and keep the other $2.

Therefore, each of the travelers wound up paying $9 for his room. Since 9 X 3 is 27, and the bellhop kept $2, what happened to the other dollar (27 + 2 = 29)?

You may or may not have heard this puzzle before. It is an interesting one, in the way the question is posed.

A simple cash flow and balance statement will throw a lot of light on the transactions.

Travelers ______Clerk ______Bellhop
-10x3 = -30 _____+30 ________0
-30 ___________+25 +5 ______0
-30 ___________+25 ________+5
-30 ___________+25 ________+3+2
-30+3=-27______+25 ________+3+2-3=+2

Final transaction:
-9x3=-27 _______+25 ________+2

Notice that each line balances itself. The final result is that the travelers paid $27, and the clerk kept $25 and the bellhop $2. So, everything balances.

What throws people off is the reference to the original $30 that everybody started off with.

Putting the transaction down on paper as a cash flow statement makes things a lot more clear.

Anyway, this is the way I looked at it. Let me know if you have any other ways of analyzing it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lifetime money back guarantee

A consumer walks into a store, purchases a digital still camera, walks out of the store. After two years of heavy use, the camera fails. Consumer walks back into the store and returns the camera stating that the camera doesn't meet his demand. The store gives money back to the consumer without asking a question.
The store is offering lifetime money back guarantee, no questions asked.

This is what Costco used to be. Today, they announced a change in their return policy citing losses due to abuse by customers.

I was not even aware of this return policy of Costco. I heard about this last month when somebody started gloating about how he returned his camera after two years of use. I was appalled by the fact that someone could even think of doing this. I was always under the impression that Costco had a 30 day money back guarantee.

At first, I was shocked to hear this. But, this got me thinking.
Why would a company offer such a return policy?
What makes a sensible return policy?
Should stores even have a return policy?

One thing we need to realize is that stores in most countries do not even offer a money back guarantee. It is only in some developed countries that we see such offers. This is mainly to spur impulse buying. You step into the store and you see a stunning boombox on the display shelf. Remember, you didn't walk into the store to buy a boombox. You wanted to buy milk. But, you fall in love with this boombox and think "If I decide that I shouldn't have bought it (for whatever reason), I can return it within 30 days", and you buy it on the spot (thanks to credit cards)! You take it home, set it up and after 20 days of use, you are used to the boombox (even if you didn't like it at first) and decide to keep it. Who wants to locate the receipt, and pack the thing into the box, and haul it back all the way to the store, and give an explanation to the store clerk to return it?.

That is exactly what the seller intended!

So, the 30 day guarantee works for the seller. And, in some cases allow the buyer too (the DVD player you bought fails to play VCDs, and you take it back after a few days). I can live with this.

Now, let us look at warranties.

Notice the bathtub curve above. The curve represents the failure rate of products over time. Statistically, products have a high failure rate early in their life (also called 'infant mortality' period), and then the rate falls and stays flat for most of the product's life. At the end of its life, the failure rate increases again due to ageing and failure of the components.

Initially manufacturers started running their products until the infant mortality period passed, and then the product was sold. A motor used to be run in a simulated environment until it passes this period. If any motor fails, it would be fixed and run again. So, the manufacturer was taking the burden of clearing this first phase.

Then, somebody had a bright idea and decided that instead of the manufacturer running the product through its IM phase, why not ask the customers to use it and if the product fails during this phase, gladly fix it for the customer.

Thus, warranties were born.

You take the risk for the manufacturer, and the manufacturer gives you an incentive (fixing free of charge) for sharing the risk. The bathtub curve varies for every product. Thus, one product comes with a 1 year warranty while another could be offered a 2 year warranty.

Where does Costco get its unlimited return policy? They initially came up with the idea to entice customers to buy from them. This worked real well. People bought from Costco since it offered an extra sense of security. What if my DVD player breaks down on day 32 or day 366? I will have to struggle with the manufacturer and get it fixed. But, with the Costco policy, I can just return it and get my money back. Awesome.

This works only if all the customers are honest. Looks like that has not been so. Especially with electronics, which become obsolete the moment you bring it home and take it out of its box. In a way, Costco asked for it when it announced its 'no questions asked' return policy.

I even heard stories of how some people returned empty TV dinner boxes stating that they didn't like the taste. How disgusting. Consumers need to understand how businesses work and start taking responsibility for their decisions, and understand the risks that come with buying a product. Understand that every product has a definite life. The TV that you buy today is not going to work for ever. Maybe, manufacturers should start printing an expected life for every product, like they do for some electric bulbs.

So, is this move going to hurt Costco?

I don't think so. I, for one, never went to Costco because of their return policy (I didn't even know of it until recently). Remember that Costco still stands apart from the competitors by offering 60 or 90 day money back guarantee, and a 2 year extended warranty for free. That is a great deal. People who used to misuse the policy may stop doing so. So, Costco wins in this situation. People who relied on the added security may think twice, but Costco needs to market their additional warranty in order to lure this crowd. Others who didn't care for the return policy, will continue to not care and continue to shop at Costco.

So, all in all, Costco wins with this move.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Learning from the West

During my recent visit to Bangalore, I noticed a strange behavior. I saw trash and filth all over sidewalks, roads, and public places. People weren't thinking twice before discarding an empty coke can or spitting a piece of gum onto the sidewalk. It was not their problem, but the city's, to keep the roads and sidewalks clean. And, 'everyone is doing it, so why shouldn't I' was the attitude.

The same person enters one of the Westernized malls and suddenly his behavior changes. All the malls in Bangalore are squeaky clean (even though they are over crowded). You cannot find a piece of trash anywhere but inside the trash cans. I wondered what caused this sudden change in behavior. The most unfortunate part was that the behavior change was only temporary, and vanished as soon as the person left the mall premises.

Was it the cleanliness to start off with? Not really. Any new public place will start out clean and slowly degrade. But, the malls were different. Even two year old malls were shiny and clean.

Was it the cleaning staff at these malls? No. I did not notice anyone following people around and cleaning after them.

I could not put my finger on this strange behavior ....

Among the many things that I noticed when I first set foot in this country was the fact that people understand their civic duties and their rights. They understand how the cities function. I remember naively telling my professor that we had public hospitals in India that are free to everyone. He immediately said that it is not free. It is paid for by the tax payers. If only people realize this fact, they would demand better care from the public hospitals instead of flocking into private facilities and paying big bucks.

In another instance, I noticed the school staff wearing black ribbons as a form of protest. Again here, I drew a contrast on how we protest in India. Bundhs, strikes and riots accompanied by stoning public (and private) buildings and destroying property. People were shocked to hear that. "Don't they understand that public property is YOUR property? You are finally going to pay for fixing or replacing what you destroyed."

That is awareness, and pride. Pride in what you have achieved as a collective whole. Awareness of where your taxes go and how they are used.

These are a few incidents that were eye openers for me. I always wondered what is missing in India. And what could make people more aware of their responsibilities, and make India a better place.

I recently happened to read this speech by Narayana Murthy (Infosys) on this very same subject that hit at the heart of many issues facing India. It is a very thought provoking read. I have included it here for your reading pleasure.


I decided to speak on an important topic on which I have pondered for years - the role of Western values in contemporary Indian society. Coming from a company that is built on strong values, the topic is close to my heart. Moreover, an organization is representative of society, and some of the lessons that I have learnt are applicable in the national context. In fact, values drive progress and define quality of life in society.

The word community joins two Latin words com (”together” or “with”) and unus (”one”). A community, then, is both one and many. It is a unified multitude and not a mere group of people. As it is said in the Vedas: Man can live individually, but can survive only collectively. Hence, the challenge is to form a progressive community by balancing the interests of the individual and that of the society. To meet this, we need to develop a value system where people accept modest sacrifices for the common good.

What is a value system? It is the protocol for behavior that enhances the trust, confidence and commitment of members of the community. It goes beyond the domain of legality - it is about decent and desirable behavior. Further, it includes putting the community interests ahead of your own. Thus, our collective survival and progress is predicated on sound values.

There are two pillars of the cultural value system - loyalty to family and loyalty to community. One should not be in isolation to the other, because, successful societies are those which combine both harmoniously. It is in this context that I will discuss the role of Western values in contemporary Indian society.

Some of you here might say that most of what I am going to discuss are actually Indian values in old ages, and not Western values. I live in the present, not in the bygone era. Therefore, I have seen these values practiced primarily in the West and not in India. Hence, the title of the topic.
I am happy as long as we practice these values - whether we call it Western or old Indian values. As an Indian, I am proud to be part of a culture, which has deep-rooted family values. We have tremendous loyalty to the family. For instance, parents make enormous sacrifices for their children. They support them until they can stand on their own feet. On the other side, children consider it their duty to take care of aged parents.

We believe: Mathru devo bhava - mother is God, and pithru devo bhava - father is God. Further, brothers and sisters sacrifice for each other. In fact, the eldest brother or sister is respected by all the other siblings. As for marriage, it is held to be a sacred union - husband and wife are bonded, most often, for life. In joint families, the entire family works towards the welfare of the family. There is so much love and affection in our family life.

This is the essence of Indian values and one of our key strengths. Our families act as a critical support mechanism for us. In fact, the credit to the success of Infosys goes, as much to the founders as to their families, for supporting them through the tough times. Unfortunately, our attitude towards family life is not reflected in our attitude towards community behavior. From littering the streets to corruption to breaking of contractual obligations, we are apathetic to the common good. In the West - the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand - individuals understand that they have to be responsible towards their community.

The primary difference between the West and us is that, there, people have a much better societal orientation. They care more for the society than we do. Further, they generally sacrifice more for the society than us. Quality of life is enhanced because of this. This is where we need to learn from the West.

I will talk about some of the lessons that we, Indians, can learn from the West.

In the West, there is respect for the public good. For instance, parks free of litter, clean streets, public toilets free of graffiti - all these are instances of care for the public good. On the contrary, in India, we keep our houses clean and water our gardens everyday - but, when we go to a park, we do not think twice before littering the place.

Corruption, as we see in India, is another example of putting the interest of oneself, and at best that of one’s family, above that of the society. Society is relatively corruption free in the West. For instance, it is very difficult to bribe a police officer into avoiding a speeding ticket.

This is because of the individual’s responsible behavior towards the community as a whole On the contrary, in India, corruption, tax evasion, cheating and bribery have eaten into our vitals. For instance, contractors bribe officials, and construct low-quality roads and bridges. The result is that society loses in the form of substandard defence equipment and infrastructure, and low-quality recruitment, just to name a few impediments. Unfortunately, this behavior is condoned by almost everyone.

Apathy in solving community matters has held us back from making progress, which is otherwise within our reach. We see serious problems around us but do not try to solve them. We behave as if the problems do not exist or is somebody else’s. On the other hand, in the West, people solve societal problems proactively. There are several examples of our apathetic attitude. For instance, all of us are aware of the problem of drought in India.

More than 40 years ago, Dr. K. L. Rao - an irrigation expert, suggested creation of a water grid connecting all the rivers in North and South India, to solve this problem. Unfortunately, nothing has been done about this. The story of power shortage in Bangalore is another instance. In 1983, it was decided to build a thermal power plant to meet Bangalore’s power requirements. Unfortunately, we have still not started it. Further, the Milan subway in Bombay is in a deplorable state for the last 40 years, and no action has been taken.

To quote another example, considering the constant travel required in the software industry; five years ago, I had suggested a 240-page passport. This would eliminate frequent visits to the passport office. In fact, we are ready to pay for it. However, I am yet to hear from the Ministry of External Affairs on this.

We, Indians, would do well to remember Thomas Hunter’s words: Idleness travels very slowly, and poverty soon overtakes it. What could be the reason for all this? We were ruled by foreigners for over thousand years. Thus, we have always believed that public issues belonged to some foreign ruler and that we have no role in solving them.

Moreover, we have lost the will to proactively solve our own problems. Thus, we have got used to just executing someone else’s orders. Borrowing Aristotle’s words: We are what we repeatedly do. Thus, having done this over the years, the decision-makers in our society are not trained for solving problems. Our decision-makers look to somebody else to take decisions. Unfortunately, there is nobody to look up to, and this is the tragedy.

Our intellectual arrogance has also not helped our society. I have traveled extensively, and in my experience, have not come across another society where people are as contemptuous of better societies as we are, with as little progress as we have achieved. Remember that arrogance breeds hypocrisy. No other society gloats so much about the past as we do, with as little current accomplishment.

Friends, this is not a new phenomenon, but at least a thousand years old. For instance, Al Barouni, the famous Arabic logician and traveler of the 10th century, who spent about 30 years in India from 997 AD to around 1027 AD, referred to this trait of Indians. According to him, during his visit, most Indian pundits considered it below their dignity even to hold arguments with him. In fact, on a few occasions when a pundit was willing to listen to hm, and found his arguments to be very sound, he invariably asked Barouni: which Indian pundit taught these smart things!

The most important attribute of a progressive society is respect for others who have accomplished more than they themselves have, and learn from them. Contrary to this, our leaders make us believe that other societies do not know anything! At the same time, everyday, in the newspapers, you will find numerous claims from our leaders that ours is the greatest nation. These people would do well to remember Thomas Carlyle’s words: The greatest of faults is to be conscious of none.

If we have to progress, we have to change this attitude, listen to people who have performed better than us, learn from them and perform better than them. Infosys is a good example of such an attitude. We continue to rationalize our failures. No other society has mastered this part as well as we have. Obviously, this is an excuse to justify our incompetence, corruption, and apathy. This attitude has to change. As Sir Josiah Stamp has said: It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.

Another interesting attribute, which we Indians can learn from the West, is their accountability. Irrespective of your position, in the West, you are held accountable for what you do. However, in India, the more ‘important’ you are, the less answerable you are. For instance, a senior politician once declared that he ‘forgot’ to file his tax returns for 10 consecutive years - and he got away with it. To quote another instance, there are over 100 loss making public sector units (central) in India. Nevertheless, I have not seen action taken for bad performance against top managers in these organizations.

Dignity of labor is an integral part of the Western value system. In the West, each person is proud about his or her labor that raises honest sweat. On the other hand, in India, we tend to overlook the significance of those who are not in professional jobs. We have a mind set that reveres only supposedly intellectual work.

For instance, I have seen many engineers, fresh from college, who only want to do cutting-edge work and not work that is of relevance to business and the country. However, be it an organization or society, there are different people performing different roles. For success, all these people are required to discharge their duties. This includes everyone from the CEO to the person who serves tea - every role is important. Hence, we need a mind set that reveres everyone who puts in honest work.

Indians become intimate even without being friendly. They ask favors of strangers without any hesitation. For instance, the other day, while I was traveling from Bangalore to Mantralaya, I met a fellow traveler on the train. Hardly 5 minutes into the conversation, he requested me to speak to his MD about removing him from the bottom 10% list in his company, earmarked for disciplinary action. I was reminded of what Rudyard Kipling once said: A westerner can be friendly without being intimate while an easterner tends to be intimate without being friendly.
Yet another lesson to be learnt from the West, is about their professionalism in dealings. The common good being more important than personal equations, people do not let personal relations interfere with their professional dealings. For instance, they don’t hesitate to chastise a colleague, even if he is a personal friend, for incompetent work.

In India, I have seen that we tend to view even work interactions from a personal perspective. Further, we are the most ‘thin-skinned’ society in the world - we see insults where none is meant. This may be because we were not free for most of the last thousand years. Further, we seem to extend this lack of professionalism to our sense of punctuality. We do not seem to respect the other person’s time.

The Indian Standard Time somehow seems to be always running late. Moreover, deadlines are typically not met. How many public projects are completed on time? The disheartening aspect is that we have accepted this as the norm rather than the exception. In the West, they show professionalism by embracing meritocracy. Meritocracy by definition means that we cannot let personal prejudices affect our evaluation of an individual’s performance. As we increasingly start to benchmark ourselves with global standards, we have to embrace meritocracy.

In the West, right from a very young age, parents teach their children to be independent in thinking. Thus, they grow up to be strong, confident individuals. In India, we still suffer from feudal thinking. I have seen people, who are otherwise bright, refusing to show independence and preferring to be told what to do by their boss. We need to overcome this attitude if we have to succeed globally.

The Western value system teaches respect to contractual obligation. In the West, contractual obligations are seldom dishonored. This is important - enforceability of legal rights and contracts is the most important factor in the enhancement of credibility of our people and nation.
In India, we consider our marriage vows as sacred. We are willing to sacrifice in order to respect our marriage vows. However, we do not extend this to the public domain. For instance, India had an unfavorable contract with Enron. Instead of punishing the people responsible for negotiating this, we reneged on the contract - this was much before we came to know about the illegal activities at Enron.

To quote another instance, I had given recommendations to several students for the national scholarship for higher studies in US universities. Most of them did not return to India even though contractually they were obliged to spend five years after their degree in India.
In fact, according to a professor at a reputed US university, the maximum default rate for student loans is among Indians - all of these students pass out in flying colors and land lucrative jobs, yet they refuse to pay back their loans. Thus, their action has made it difficult for the students after them, from India, to obtain loans. We have to change this attitude.

Further, we Indians do not display intellectual honesty. For example, our political leaders use mobile phones to tell journalists on the other side that they do not believe in technology! If we want our youngsters to progress, such hypocrisy must be stopped. We are all aware of our rights as citizens. Nevertheless, we often fail to acknowledge the duty that accompanies every right. To borrow Dwight Eisenhower’s words: People that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both. Our duty is towards the community as a whole, as much as it is towards our families.
We have to remember that fundamental social problems grow out of a lack of commitment to the common good. To quote Henry Beecher: Culture is that which helps us to work for the betterment of all. Hence, friends, I do believe that we can make our society even better by assimilating these Western values into our own culture - we will be stronger for it.

Most of our behavior comes from greed, lack of self-confidence, lack of confidence in the nation, and lack of respect for the society. To borrow Gandhi’s words: There is enough in this world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed. Let us work towards a society where we would do unto others what we would have others do unto us. Let us all be responsible citizens who make our country a great place to live. In the words of Churchill: Responsibility is the price of greatness. We have to extend our family values beyond the boundaries of our home.

Finally, let us work towards maximum welfare of the maximum people - Samasta janaanaam sukhino bhavantu. Thus, let us - people of this generation, conduct ourselves as great citizens rather than just good people so that we can serve as good examples for our younger generation.

--- Speech by Narayana Murthy

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Chicago Bears: Superbowl XLI champions

What do they do with all those sports merchandise (t-shirts, caps, mugs, etc) printed with the above mentioned banner?

That is what I was wondering when the Colts won the Superbowl last Sunday. As soon as the Colts won, someone came and gave Tony Dungy a cap that had the Colts insignia. Wow, that is fast delivery, I thought. Did someone print it (or embroider it) within a minute and get it onto the field? Nope.

If I were the manufacturer of those apparel, this is what my plan would be:
- Come up with a ballpark number "b" for each item. This would be derived from historic data of merchandise sales ON the day of the event.
- Manufacture that many of each of the merchandise with logo of each team in the finals as winner.
- Of course, make tonnes of generic merchandise that doesn't proclaim a winner (T-shirts that just say "Superbowl XLI winner").
- Spread this loot around for sale.
- On the night of the Superbowl work overtime (and on overdrive) and produce the actual required number of items (again, use historical sales data) for sale in the coming days. Roll this out the very next day.

Now, after the game, we end up with lots of merchandise with the loser team's name on it. What do we do with these? Discard it as trash?

Turns out that the scrap merchandise is sent to under developed countries as donation. NFL has inked a deal with Gifts-in-kind, and is donating the merchandise. Isn't that a wonderful idea! I can now see this happening in a lot other areas too.

I only hope they are not doing the same with banned/expired materials/drugs and shipping them as donations to needy countries ("Here you go. Here is some extra asbestos that you can use").

Monday, January 15, 2007

Action v/s Activity

I am currently reading the book "Creativity- Unleashing the forces within" by Osho (Bhagavan Shree Rajaneesh) and he draws a very fine distinction between 'Action' and 'Activity'.

We all know that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, what Osho says is that we should be performing 'actions' and not just engaging in 'activities'. He goes to say "Activity is your escape from yourself. In action you are.

Be aware. Feel the difference between action and activity. Activity is when the action has no relevance."

He also talks about the saying that 'an idle mind is devil's workshop' and that it is foolish to fill your life with 'activity' just so that you are not idle. Relaxation and meditation dictates that you engage in NO activity. Relaxation is the absence of activity and action.

It is an interesting exercise to look at ourselves and examine the percentage of our waking time we spend on 'activities' for the sake of being active, and the time we spend on taking 'action' and achieving something.