Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lessons from ATIRA’s early efforts at innovating in textile mills in Ahmedabad

Eighty years after Ranchhodlal Chhotalal founded the first textile mill in 1861, Ahmedabad’s mill owners were still dependent on Manchester experts for technical guidance. By 1940s the industry had grown to run eleven million spindles and 195,000 looms. Finally the mill owners under the championship of Kasturbhai Lalbhai established Ahmedabad Textile Industry’s Research Association (ATIRA) in 1947, a co-operative research institute modeled on the lines of research associations in Britain. Scientific experiments at the lab lead to process and product improvement ideas that promised savings and productivity gains to the tune of several crores. However, the ideas were met with huge resistance from the technicians and the mill owners themselves. What could be the reason? Could it be possible that the early interventions were not robust? Let’s explore.

It all started with Kasturbhai asking Vikram Sarabhai to study the structures of industrial research institutes in the UK and Europe with a view of implementing them at home. Vikram was just back from his second stint at Cambridge. He was an apt choice because he was a trained scientist and one of their own – the son of one of the city’s leading mill owners. ATIRA, India’s first co-operative industrial research lab, was started with an initial contribution of Rs. 50 lakh from Ahmedabad mill owners. The initial staff of four – a statistician, a social psychologist, a high-polymer chemist and a physical chemist – was a unique cross-functional team. Vikram was the ring-master. Over the next few years he hired seventy people, most of them young like himself, with no experience of textile manufacturing.

By February 1952, a pilot mill had come up equipped with machinery and facilities for simulating the actual workings of a mill. Studies began to tackle the problems which were assumed to be endemic till then by the industry. One study confirmed that low productivity in spinning was due to inadequate maintenance of the machinery and absence of process controls. Another study proposed methods for reducing cotton wastage. Tamarind kernel powder, an agricultural waste product, was tested as a substitute for starch. Suggestions were made for improving ginning and weaving techniques, decreasing humidification costs, conserving energy, and so on. An estimated Rs. 20 crore, much of it in foreign exchange, was to be saved these innovations over the next two decades. And what was the result? Vikram’s methods were openly attacked in board rooms and technicians in the mills were convinced that ATIRA staffers were spies for the management. What went wrong? After all it was the same mill owners who had funded the initiative.

Well, it is not hard to see that these early interventions weren’t culture-friendly and hence non-robust. First, Vikram and ATIRA challenged the conventional gut-feel based decision making of mill owners and advocated scientific methods which were totally alien to them. Second, it emphasized independent research to home grown ideas from within the mills. It is hard to believe that there would be no bright spots in the form of ideas and practices in the century old industry. ATIRA could have identified and amplified these as a starting point. This would have built mutual trust and prepared the mills folks for accepting more radical ideas. Third, all the ATIRA staffers came from outside the textile industry and hence it became hard for them to find champions inside. ATIRA could have encouraged participation from technicians.

Over the next few years Vikram & ATIRA learnt about ‘the human problems involved in introducing change’ with significant contribution from Dr. Kamla Chowdhry, who was the head of industrial psychology division at ATIRA.

Source: Vikram Sarabhai, a life by Amrita Shah, Penguin, 2007

Sunday, April 3, 2011

4 types of innovation leaders

Innovation leaders influence innovations and inspire innovators – sometimes for many generations to come. What are the different types of innovation leaders? Let’s look at one such classification: Solvers, surfers, capacity builders and champions.

1. Solver: When Gandhi returned from Africa to India there were many problems he felt drawn to – Lack of vocational education, poverty, discrimination against women, caste system, political struggle. Eventually he focused on only one of them – political freedom. And he attacked the problem in a way that is still inspiring many generations more than half a century after he is gone. Solvers like Gandhi immerse themselves in a difficult problem and are always several steps ahead of their contemporaries in their approach. Other solvers that come to mind are: Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank), Baba Amte (Anandwan), James Watt (Steam engine), Thomas Edison (Light bulb), Andrew Wiles (Fermat’s Last Theorem), Steve Wozniak (Apple).

2. Surfer: When ring spindle, a new technology, was brought to the notice of Jamsetji Tata he immediately bought two frames and started experimenting at Empress Mill. Neither any mill in India nor the main supplier from England (Pratt) had thought of adopting the new technology. When Jamsetji encountered a report suggesting possible iron ore deposits in Chamba district, he immediately took a sample to Germany for testing. Surfers are always looking for waves, especially BIG waves. Many times they don’t know where the wave is going to lead them to. Some of my famous surfers include: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, David Grossman (IBM), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Masaru Ibuka (Sony).

3. Capacity builder: When Padmanabh Joshi wrote his PhD thesis – “Vikram Sarabhai: A study on innovative leadership and institution building” from Gujarat University in 1986, the term “innovation” itself wasn’t fashionable let alone “innovation leadership”. And yet he couldn’t have chosen a more apt title for the thesis. Vikram Sarabhai was instrumental in building innovation capacity in India through institutions such as – ATIRA: India’s first textile research cooperative, Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), ORG: India’s first market research organization, IIM Ahmedabad. As if this wasn’t enough, Sarabhai architected India’s space program. The secret, according to him, was in establishing a firm foundation: “The early beginnings of any institution are crucial, and the “culture” (or lack of it) brought the first entrants plays a significant role in establishing norms, procedures and practices” he said. Capacity builders work on various elements of the innovation ecosystem. Another of my favorite innovation capacity builders is: A G Lafley (P&G).

4. Champion: George Fernandes took over as railway minister in December 1989. Next month in January, he called for a board meeting at Raj Bhavan, Lucknow. In his talk he mentioned that there were two projects which were uppermost in his mind and they were his dreams for a long time. One was a railway link between Chithoni and Bogha in Bihar crossing the mighty Gankat river and the other was the west coast railway connecting Bombay and Mangalore (later called Konkan railway). Dr. E. Sreedharan attended the meeting as an engineering member from railways. Fernandez told Sreedharan in the meeting, “I will depend on you for realizing these two projects”. Fernandes neither had the technical know-how nor had the resources. But he used his influence with Chief Ministers like Mulayam Singh and Lalu Prasad Yadav and senior ministers like Ramakrishna Hegde and Madhu Dandavate and removed the hurdles for each of the projects. Champions support others’ ideas and help them move forward faster. Other champions I can remember are: the role Einstein played for Satyendra Nath Bose or the role Patrick played for Grossman at IBM.


Vikram Sarabhai: A life by Amrita Shah

Story of Konkan Railway of India by E. Sreedharan