The Attitude of “chalta hai”

jaysrin's picture

If every nation may be said to have a spirit that showcases its identity, ours must surely be one of "chalta hai" (everything goes). How does this affect us....customers as well as businesses?

 Managers at enlightened organizations may often find themselves partial to Porter's five forces model or the BCG four-quadrant matrix (as strategic positioning tools), the resource-based view, balanced scorecard, core competence, or other frameworks as the ideal strategy methodology. The idea of strategy, though, is perhaps far simpler and commonsensical: it is simply a matter of attitude, insights, and method. The acronym thus formed - AIM - is also at once symptomatic of what strategy intends: it aims to secure a differentiation by directing an attitude of "can do" to develop critical insights and rooting it in method that delivers sustainable advantage. It is in the method that various schools of thought differ.
 

If every nation may be said to have a spirit that showcases its identity, ours must surely be one of "chalta hai" (everything goes). Indeed, this Hindi phrase can be found in most of our languages and used frequently: in Kannada it's "solpa adjust madi" (please adjust), in Tamil it's "athulam kandukathangai, sir" (don't let these worry you), and so on. The point is, we have internalized an attitude of taking things in our stride, to not make a fuss, and to tolerate inefficiency, waste, and poor quality. Such a national attitude has its repercussions when the minority voice seeking a better product or service becomes the aberrant voice and a "troublemaker". More importantly, products and service delivery have lower thresholds and perpetuate the cycle of poor quality and low expectations. Thus an attitude of acceptance of decreased expectations prevents us from constantly seeking solutions and innovating on them. This may seem harsh but the evidence is all around us. Certain sectors in recent years have attempted to break free of self-imposed limitations, notably where competition is high and any vestige of old style thinking likely to meet resistance from newly empowered customers. We can think of banking and retail in this connection. But a competitive marketplace cannot by itself ensure innovations or better service because high growth and high volumes have their own logic that sometimes run counter to marketplace economics. The telecom industry is a good example.

 
 

Customers begin to have higher expectations only when they have been exposed to superior products and services.

 

 

Customers begin to have higher expectations only when they have been exposed to superior products and services. This is a slow process because it requires an oddball organization to stand up and demonstrate that things could be better, and the results for itself are not always positive. In the 1960s in Tamil Nadu, TVS ran an extensive moffusil bus service whose standards of quality and on-time performance has not been bettered to this day by the airline industry, let alone passenger road transport. In our Nehruvian enthusiasm to embrace the "commanding heights of the economy" passenger road transport in state after state was nationalized as with many other sectors. In the 21st century, we still don't have any where close to the benchmarks set by the likes of Tata-owned Air India or TVS with its bus services in the mid-20th century. So the question: there was a generation that was exposed to high standards of delivery, even if only in pockets; what happened? The fact is, expectations can be systematically destroyed and a whole nation forced to accept lower standards of living when a national psyche is framed by an attitude of chalta hai. Our singular national achievement perhaps was in forsaking our very own emergent diamonds in the rough and substitute them with a self-destructive malaise of indifference.

 

An attitude of complacence and low standards fostered by the political and bureaucratic class is one thing. What can one say of the private sector, now unleashed and rearing to go places? A like attitude prevails in most organizations and it requires the will and persistence of promoters and senior management to change this all down the line. Permit me to cite two examples of the same organization that display contrasting conduct. At the Chennai regional head office of the State Bank of India, the imposing building mostly houses HQ staff. The building also has an adjunct that has one ATM (note, one ATM, when the property is arguably in Chennai's most valuable central business district with a large hospital next door!) and a retail banking branch. The ATM is often non-functional while my experience with the branch to transact some business was less-than-satisfactory - at 2:30 PM (still open hours for customers), the office was deserted with just one teller busy talking with a colleague while six customers waited. The manager was nowhere in sight. Are all SBI branches equally indifferent? My branch in south Chennai stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. It is neat, well ordered, efficient, courteous and friendly. In the former, the attitude of chalta hai prevails while the local branch management in the latter has obviously overcome it.

 

Attitude is important  because it inhibits or fosters the next step on the path to securing strategic advantage: insight. Innovative companies require both attitude and insight before they can begin to focus on the prescriptives that management gurus often dole out. When these are missing - as they often are - strategic initiatives founder on the rocks of internal confusion, absence of passion behind a goal, oneupmanship, and forces that work at cross-purposes. And these happen despite senior management commitment to innovation, quality, low cost, customer focus, and other lofty ideas seeking to reposition the organization. So where does that leave an organization that is keen to stand tall and lead in its chosen market? Lost in the buzzwords such as market share, margin, growth, positioning, and competitive advantage is the simple idea that, just as with individuals, companies too need - nay, require - a bedrock of positive attitude, self belief, and confidence. Long before the suits get down to the task of strategic initiatives and reorgs perhaps management might want to think about how to percolate positive vibes and a can do spirit. For that to happen, listen to the hard working but voiceless majority who watch helplessly as a minority that is deeply entrenched at all levels of an organization run the roost. This is the cabal that has perfected self interest, feathered its own nest, has constructed islands of groupism, and promotes fear through a perception of reflected power. Any management that is really intent on a makeover can win the war of attitude only when it destroys this festering cancer. The majority will then be behind it all the way.

 

The next article will explore the aspect of insight and how organizations could be receptive to, and foster, ideas that germinate in every nook and cranny and bring it to the fore. 

 

Jay Srinivasan is founder of CubbonPark Consulting, a boutique management practice specializing in transformative processes and customer experience. He is co-author of Internet Commerce, Metrics and Models in the New Era of Accountability and may be reached at srinivasan.jay@cubbonpark.com.

 

Issue BG91 Oct 08