Sudhir Kumar (SK) played a key role in turning Indian Railways around during 2004-2008. However, initial years in his tenure in Bihar were disastrous. He was shunted, frustrated and according one wise-old colleague accelerating towards martyrdom. What did the angry young man learn about implementing a strategy during this period? Let’s look at 3 lessons in this article.
1. First learn to survive: When SK was posted to Bihar as a fresh IAS officer, he wanted to “quickly sort out the whole world” – especially the corrupt system. He says, “While I was honest, I was also impolite, abrasive, and saw words like ‘compromise, adjustment or tact’ as signs of cowardice and weakness”. One of his first projects was to arrest the theft of electricity in Patna. He discovered that many prominent people were involved in the illegal activity. He began to go after the top honchos to send a strong message to the bad guys. Is it difficult to guess what happened next? SK was transferred to a different post. The system revolted in unison to make SK ineffective. SK learnt his first lesson: To accomplish a mission, first learn to survive in the position.
2. Empower the beneficiary: One of the assignments was to build wells for the poor. Initially, SK and team executed the project with remote control. All the decisions about selection of well site, their diameter, depth, material to be used were made sitting at the head quarter. The primary users of the well were not consulted at all. The scheme was a failure in terms of how useful these wells turned out to be. Later the approach was modified to empower the people on-the-ground in making these decisions. SK says, “As outsiders, our judgements would never be as good because we had limited data on ground realities.”
3. Start where you can easily make progress: In another project SK & team was to increase tax revenue by arresting tax evasion. One option was to attack the unorganized sector like spices or cashew nuts. However, in this category it was difficult to get authentic information. The other option was to look at organized sector categories like scooter, motorcycle and cellphone. In this category, the first sale at the point of origin was in white currency. SK started with the second option where computers could be used to maintain and track the data. It worked very well. Later on when SK worked with Lalu Prasad in Indian Railways this lesson was very useful.
“Changing tracks: Reinventing the spirit of Indian Railways” by Nilakant V. and Ramnarayan S, Collins Business, 2009, pp 29-34.Sudhir Kumar’s photo is from IIM Indore site.