Lessons in quality and innovation

January 12, 2014 by ahmed

Suresh Lulla, the Founder & Managing Director of Qimpro Consultants Pvt Ltd and a board member of the Global Benchmarking Network was the guest in a Learning Infinite mentor chat.

Below is an excerpt from the mentor chat Suresh shares his views, which came from more than 40 years experience as a management consultant, speaker and author.


Q: Sir, what is the role of challenges in shaping one’s career?

SL: They are the building blocks of experience. Challenges enable you to think strategically. Challenges take you to your vision.

Q: What are the absolutely critical qualities one should have to deal with challenges successfully?

SL: Understand customers, Understand customers and Understand customers. When faced with a challenge, ask what is the process? And who is the customer receiving the output of this process? There are only two things to remember in quality management: Customer and Process. Who defines quality? Customer! Who is the final inspector? Customer! Who pays your salary? Customer! To succeed, you have to be passionate about what you are pursuing.

Q: I am required to define some KRA and goals for my team, my team does back office functions could you suggest some streams which can make work interesting for the team as well?

SL: TAT of your value creation processes is a good place to start. TAT ensures the wasteful activities are in check. Proficient TAT also ensures customer satisfaction. To make it interesting, challenge the team to reduce the TAT by x%. The x% should have a stretch. It should bring fire in the belly.

Q: Thanks for your advice, but the problem is that the TAT is already the best it can be e.g. same day delivery. However, what I want is to give some innovation / learning based KRA’s?

SL: This problem can probably be addressed by understanding the difference between creativity and innovation. Creativity is the generation of an abundance of ideas. Innovation is the process of harvesting these ideas and converting them into something tangible that the customer wants. So to that extent, creativity is a right brain activity and innovation can be a left brain activity. So do you want to set your KRAs on the creativity aspect or the innovation aspect?

Q: Sir, my organization has always entrusted me with unfamiliar tasks, and I have always taken these challenges and managed to deliver successfully. However, whenever I try and entrust similar responsibilities on my team members, they do not always manage to deliver successfully, what do I do wrong? And how can I encourage them to deliver to meet expectations?

SL: Have you tried being a team member where one of your team members is the team leader? A Leader has to be a good follower.

Q: Thanks this is very interesting! …Would you mind giving me an example?

SL: Can you visualize Dr J J Irani, the then Managing Director of Tata Steel being a member of a team led by a Deputy General Manager and conducting himself as a member and not the senior most person in the team? Can you imagine Ratan Tata chairing a panel of judges meeting where the members of the panel are in total awe of him? How he changed their body language in a 2 hour meeting to one of relaxed creative thinking blended with humor. One has to realize this difference between autocratic and participative leadership. What succeeds is participative leadership.

Q: Sir, can you recommend some illustrative reading material on participative leadership?

SL: The concept of interdependence is very clearly explained by Stephen Covey in “The 7Habits of Highly Effective People”

Q: Sir, if I decide to have my own start up in a few years what should be my personal goals and vision as of today, I being a recent pass out?

SL: I would recommend that you first define your mission in life – the purpose of your existence. Then set a vision with a prescribed time horizon. Remember you need to revisit your vision each time there is a change in the external environment. On the other hand, your mission will remain a constant. “Vision of a visionary, mission of a missionary.

Q: Over the years of working, being an vertical expert or being a jack of all trades will help you grow in an organization. How does manufacturing industries see if one does not have fancy management degree?

SL: R V Ramachandran, the former Chairman of Cummims India was an Inter (Arts). I can’t recall a name. It was in the 1970 that ITC hunted for a Managing Director. They received 1000s of applications. Selected candidate was an Inter(arts). It’s your ability to connect with people that matters. The skill of empathetic listening is probably the least available in top management.

Q: That is a really surprising one! While people at the top are required to not only increase the business interest but also uphold the stake holders interest (employees being one of them). What do you suggest/ how does one become a good empathetic listener.

SL: Seek first to understand than to be understood. It is different from sympathetic listening where you agree even if you don’t understand, as for example, when you offer condolence to a friend for the loss of a dear one. With empathetic listening, I give you the dignity of listening/understanding even though I may not agree.

Q: I come from software industry where deadlines are short and customer demands are huge. In this scenario what is the ideal mix of strategies that we should deploy and achieve deadlines as well as the demand of quality? Need your views on it.

SL: Quality management is about making your processes better, faster and cheaper. Processes come in various avatars as for example, value creation processes, support processes and supplier processes. Practitioners indulge in managing the quality of value creation processes, more specifically the operational processes. Symptoms of problems surface in operational processes. Over 50% of the root causes lie before operations commence. The processes involved here are Voice of Customer (VoC), design and outsourcing. World class organizations focus on these 3 processes to be better, faster, cheaper and different.

Q: Sir, if there is one Skill one must have to be an effective leader, what would it be?

SL: Think of any leader you admire. I would bet 99% the person had extraordinary listening skills.

Q: Sir, I am a Sales and Marketing professional and I handle a large team. The constant problems I face are lack of innovation in day to day operations in my team members. They stick to time and tested methods. How to make them think innovatively and help them develop their own problem solving skills before coming to me? Can u quote some examples?

SL: Organizations look to the actions of their leaders. So you wish them to be innovative ask yourself “how innovative am I?”. Also, a culture of innovation is built when an environment of blame or ridicule is eliminated. People must be encouraged to ideate. Where there is an issue of ideation there are creativity tools that can be used in teams to generate right brain innovative ideas.

Q: Hello sir, I am a Computer Science Engineering Graduate. I am looking for a job experience, but unable to find one. Can you suggest a few alternatives to find employment or improve employability?

SL: While I may not be answering this question specifically, I was chatting with a young person from Purdue University (US). He brought to my attention that in the final year the curriculum included how to find the right job that you are passionate about. He also mentioned that one should attend every interview even if one does not want to join the company. Because each interview is a part of the learning process. He also mentioned the importance of how to write resume that reflects your passion and not your academic achievements. Selection usually happens when an employer senses your passion.

Q: Sir, is problem solving a critical skill to have? Why problem solvers are always in demand and what makes them so?

SL: Solving the right problem is a critical skill! The hard part is identifying the problem and subsequently defining it very objectively. Problem solvers are in demand because less than 20% of the executives have this skill and over 80% of work requires this skill.

Q: How can one go about developing this key skill?

SL: Few people know how to teach this skill. The legendary quality guru Dr. J. M. Juran demystified problem solving so that even top management could understand the power of it. It enabled them to define strategic problems effectively. Problems selected a team. Participation in the team was not voluntary. Results were assured.

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