Friday, July 31, 2009

Business stripped bare - Richard Branson

Read but dont follow!

A great book to read for any entrepreneur or business manager. With great insight as well as humor, Richard Branson tell us his view of the business world, his many success stories and a few disappointments. It is an inspiring story but people like Mr.Branson are one in a billion. If the rest of us try to follow the act, we will quickly realize that none of it is as easy as it looks. As an entrepreneur I can very well admire and appreciate Mr.Branson's capabilites. But just like how a club tennis player can look with awe but cannot imitate, the elegance of the strokes which Federer plays with such ease, we need to realize that a Brenson act is one that would be practically impossible to be replicated by anyone else.

But the book offers good advice, though Mr.Branson still seems to be continuing to sell his brand through the book as well - especially in the first 200 pages. The last 100 pages are more fascinating as Mr.Branson moves away from the Virgin story and tells us the challenges the world is facing. His approach to solving the problems of humanity is very inspiring and he shows how all of us at any level can contribute in our own way. And no contribution is too small.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A miracle in India !

"Bankruptcy to Billions - How the Indian Railways transformed" - by Sudhir Kumar & Shagun Mehrotra

Can you imagine a mammoth 100 year old Government organization in any country (let alone India) with 1.4 million employees transforming itself from a near bankruptcy situation to $6 Billion in cash surplus over just four years! And that too without privatization, layoffs or price increases! To cap it all they improved service levels significantly and actually managed to reduce prices (over 40%) for the poorer customer segments !! I am sure that everyone will agree that this qualifies as a miracle.

Well, that is the story of the Indian Railways from 2004 to 2008, and it is clearly told in this book “Bankruptcy to Billions” by Sudhir Kumar and Shahgum Mehrotra. Sudhir Kumar, a Government employee in the Indian Administrative Services was deputed on Special duty to the Minister of Railways (Lalu Prasad Yadav) and played a key role in this miracle story. Keep in mind that India has one of the largest railway networks in the world - daily running 13,000 trains (including 9000 passenger trains) over 63,000 km of routes and carrying 17 million passengers.

How did they do it? For an in depth understanding one needs to read the book. But I would summarize the management strategy as follows:

(a) Re-conceptualizing the Railway’s business - realizing that they are not a monopoly if they see themselves being in the Transportation business competing with buses, airlines, shipping lines for passenger traffic and trucks, ships and pipelines for the freight business (b) Innovation and Asset optimization - running faster longer and heavier trains, coordination and cooperation among the thousands of internal departments (c) Strategic investments for increasing utilization of existing assets by filling gaps (d) Alliances with private companies to meet soaring demand and co-opt competition (e) A deliberative and calibrated approach to make small changes and then learn, revise and scale up in a phased manner.

The book explains step by step on how the strategy was executed and it is an excellent case study of what can be achieved when politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats collaborate and innovate. It is also an example of how political compulsions can be reconciled with commercial objectives and produce a win-win situation for all. The book also dispels the notions that were spread by some in India that the turn around was more though accounting jugglery and just leveraging the vast real estate that Indian Railways owned. Further it also shows that the success was not just by plucking low lying fruits, but by making fundamental changes which should continue to propel Indian Railways forward. I hope that this story is used as a case study for MBA students world wide.

The book has some drawbacks though - the most critical being the lack of visibility in the book, of the key players who achieved this miracle. The team is just mentioned as ‘reformers’ - perhaps the author himself being one of them, was reluctant to project his role. Some more background of the railways from it inception at the time of the British, and its growth since independence, pictures of trains, stations and employees, would have been useful for non-Indian readers. The challenges that the team must have gone through are downplayed - the authors themselves don’t seem to have fully realized the scope and impact of their achievement!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A History of Ancient and Medieval India by Upinder Singh

An excellent reference book on Indian History

This is the most comprehensive and well written book on Ancient and Medieval Indian History that I have seen. Starting from the Stone Age and going up to the 12th century this is an excellent reference book, both for the student as well as for the general public. Well illustrated with color maps, photographs and figures, the book is printed and bound beautifully. Regarding the organization of the chapters let me quote from the book:

"Each chapter constitutes a chronological unit within a larger framework, providing a comprehensive overview of historical issues and details, and constructing profiles of the various geographical regions in the sub continent. The chapter outline provides a view of the broad organization of the chapter. An opening story from a variety of sources serves as an engaging start for the chapter and also presents a strand from the rich thematic core of the chapter's discussion."

I can't put it any better, but can only confirm it is not at all an exaggeration and each chapter looks like an art of work! The links to the early Indian literature, the tools, coins, inscriptions and other archeological evidence, external sources, later scientific interpretations of the evidence, and new directions of research are so well covered in each chapter than one cannot ask for anything more.

The book is expensive (Rs.3,500 in India and over $120 in U.S) but well worth it for the serious student of Indian History. I was also told that the author is the daughter of the India's prime minister, Mr.Manmohan Singh. I have not cross checked that, but anyway all Indians can be proud of Upinder Singh's contribution.