Thursday, September 10, 2009

What can innovation movement in India learn from Quality movement?

Dr. Mashelkar writes about how the “innovation buzz” is getting stronger everywhere and getting voiced in places like President of India’s address in Parliament (7th June), Obama’s Cairo address (7th June), creation of I-20, the first Global Innovation Leaders’ Summit (fashioned on G-20) held at San Francisco (3rd Jun to 5th Jun). Mashelkar represented India at this I-20. In his article, he has written about on how innovation can become 21st century India’s mantra. At this point, it certainly looks like a dream. I can see three possible ways in which innovation movement in India can pan out over the next decade:

  1. Innovation movement not only creates more global brands from India (like Tata, Reliance, Infosys), but takes the innovation capacity of India to the next level. (Most optimistic scenario)
  1. Innovation movement goes up and down its hype cycle and ends up initially increasing innovation capacity for India but also creates a number of dysfunctional processes and systems, eventually becoming a gaali (bad word).
  1. Innovation movement never takes off and goes into oblivion like a passing fad (most pessimistic scenario)

If I sense the buzz correctly, I feel it is very unlikely that innovation will be a passing fad. Innovation becoming a gaali is a distinct possibility. Question is: Can we learn from a past movement which eventually became a gaali? And this brings me to the quality movement which dominated Indian industry over the past decade, starting with ISO and then bringing all sorts of new acronyms like TQM, CMM, CMMI, PCMM until people got sick of it all.

I believe all movements start with good intent. Where did the quality movement take the wrong turn? Let’s look at what one of the fathers of the movement, Dr. Edward Deming felt when he was at the fag end of his life (age 90). He writes in his letter to Peter Senge (given in Fifth Discipline):

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning.

What Dr. Deming is saying that as we became obsessed with creating quality processes we lost touch with human nature, we forgot our anxieties and aspirations. We mistook means as the goal. As a person who can now relate to anthropology more than technology, I can see that changing management psyche is not easy. But are there things that can be learnt from the quality movement? Here are a few things I can think of:

1. Simplicity: Systems should be simple to use and maintain. CMM and its variants are far too bulky and one is easily lost in creating checkboxes.

2. Flexibility: Systems should separate “weighing scales” and “fitness programs”. Weighing scales should be easy to use and fitness programs should offer lots of options. CMM is far too normative in its implementation.

3. Accountability: It should need very little or almost no support staff. The army of so called “Quality engineers” actually gave a feeling to the manager as though quality is someone else’s responsibility.

Any thoughts?


  1. I would say you are way too polite about the damage the quality wave has done to Indian IT market. It has actually become the impediment for the new Innovation mantra. But the quality police are not going to disappear so easily and quickly. The fourth possibility that you did not list is what I am afraid of.

    The quality police may now become Innovation police in new incarnation. Who knows, we may be chasing some "innovation maturity" certifications driven/defined by some omni-potent institution located at you-know-where!


  2. My concern is that we in India have often chosen degrees ahead than education, and quality certificates ahead of quality. The real risk I am scared of is the mushrooming of Certified Innovators and Accredited Innovating Organizations everywhere.

    I think this time round, we should focus on number of ideas generated, and impact of our innovations, rather than number of certificates.


  3. It could be the law of diminishing returns. All these process frameworks brought us to where we are today, but not further. The same would happen to many initiatives.

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