The noise in the hall is deafening. Drummers are banging away with gusto and dancers, performing the traditional Sri Lankan perahera, are leaping about energetically, making their way across the hall.
Flag bearers enter in step, with more bearers behind holding up a decorative canopy for a regal couple who enter. Loud cheering and whistles erupt in the hall.
The ‘king’ dressed in a traditional coat and a mundu, is none other than Vinod Dasari, the 52-year-old Managing Director of commercial vehicle-maker, Ashok Leyland.
With his wife Sarita beside him, Dasari ascends the throne, or rather, the stage, and waves to the audience, who roar appreciatively. His speech is interspersed with him singing soulful old Hindi and Tamil hits as well.
One would be right in thinking it’s one big party, but the event is the grand culmination of months of project evaluation, selection and careful analysis.
Now in its twentieth year, Ashok Leyland’s Improve, a comprehensive employee engagement movement, brought together 75 teams, along with employee spouses, to the Sri Lankan capital Colombo early last month, to present to a jury their kaizens — and how they were actually implemented during financial year 2017-18 — from manufacturing to corporate functions.
Twenty years of Improve
Of 75 team presentations, 12 made it to the finals and the gala evening was to announce and celebrate the winning teams. While the ostensible motivation for the projects under Improve is cost saving, P Harihar, Senior VP, Manufacturing and Project Planning, who oversees the entire exercise, says, “Financial savings are not the only basis for selection of an Improve project; it could be improvement in ergonomics or quality, productivity, delivery performance, machine utilisation or any aspect which helps improve processes and has a significant bearing on the performance of a unit or function.”
While many large manufacturing companies have comprehensive programmes to implement suggestions from the shop floor, Leyland’s President, HR, NV Balachandar, says ‘Improve’ is perhaps the only one to create a sense of camaraderie among workmen and their supervisors.
“It’s the only employee engagement programme of its kind where a unionised workforce and the executives jointly make a presentation,” he explains. “It’s unique as, normally, you would have separate events but here a team of two executives, one supervisor, and shop floor workers are part of the team presentation.”
As Dasari says of Improve, “I believe average companies use people’s hands, good companies use people’s heads and great companies use people’s hearts. The only way to get people emotionally involved in their jobs is to celebrate successes.”
Improve had its genesis in the late 1990s. Post the liberalisation of the economy in 1991-92, there was heady growth in the CV industry with annual growth rates of 36.9 per cent, 23.4 per cent and 20.7 per cent between 1994-97. The following year, there was a crash of 40 per cent in sales.
As Harihar recalls, “At that time Leyland had invested in a capacity expansion drive by adding facilties at Bhandara and Alwar. However, as it happens invariably we faced an economic downturn.”
Cost cuts and experimenting
The most obvious call was to cut down costs but the senior leadership also decided to experiment — it also asked workmen what they could do proactively to improve productivity. What started as an enthusiastic brainstorming exercise caught the imagination of the workforce, says Harihar.
When there was an economic recovery the following year, Leyland continued with its Improve initiative, seeing that it had motivated the workforce and empowered them. The idea behind Improve was simple: employees know their jobs best and, given an opportunity, can come together as a group, brainstorm and work on improvement ideas.
From a rudimentary beginning, Improve has now become a highly streamlined and systematic process. Teams have to post their kaizens or suggestions on ‘Gemba Mpower’, a software developed for logging, tracking and monitoring the ideas. The programme also ensures no duplication of ideas by checking the archives.
As Harihar points out, there’s a five-stage filtration process. First the teams implement their ideas after taking prior approvals from the design department or quality or process engineering.
After that, if they claim that say ₹5 crore has been saved, then this will need to be validated by the finance department. Subsequently, another central team validates each of the benefits from each project and signs off.
“That way, there is authenticity and transparency,” explains Harihar. An eight-step process is followed for problem solving and each team has to ensure that their suggestions are deployable and replicable across other plants as well. Only suggestions that are implemented during a financial year are considered for the Improve grand finale.
“So, it’s not just a conceptual idea or imagination but projects that have been completed and have resulted in improvements that are in the running for the finals,” adds Harihar.
Improve projects are essentially Kaizens involving small expenditure outlays and necessary budgets are allocated to implement their ideas. In 1998, 22 teams presented their projects at the maiden edition of Improve, scrutinised from 750 — at the first filtration stage of mini-Improve.
Year 2007 saw 2,137 teams competing in the mini-Improve and 60 were selected to participate in the finals. In 2017-18, 20,150 teams competed in the first stage and 75 were selected to participate in the Improve finals. These projects, stemming from employee ideas, have made their impact on the balance sheet. For instance, the 1,423 projects completed during 2006 yielded a one-time benefit of ₹690 lakh and recurring benefits of ₹5.13 crore. Financial year 2017-18 saw a saving of ₹112 crore, achieved through various improvement projects completed during the year.
However, as Leyland’s top management emphasises, the lasting benefits from Improve lie outside financial considerations. It celebrates the best in terms of innovation and teamwork and is a great motivator.
The finals are celebrated in style: earlier Improve grand finales were held in locales such as Ooty and Mysore to Dubai and Kuala Lumpur with surprise guests ranging from cricketer Kris Srikanth to a former Miss India to talk to the teams.
What next for Improve? As Balachandar says, it will get better, not necessarily bigger. There’s a plan to extend it to the sales and service teams as well as propagate it more on the external world.
“It will get more inclusive and sharper. Our focus today is on the uniqueness of the programme, the use of IT in the whole initiative and the ability to sustain and apply Improve suggestions across the plants,” he explains.
Dasari himself says that he comes to Improve every year to “recharge myself”. And how! After the prize distribution ceremony, the Leyland chief shed his ‘kingly’ robes for an Ashok Leyland T-shirt and jeans, crooned Hindi songs on stage and danced the night away with his young teams from the plants. High energy, indeed.
The writer was in Colombo at the invitation of Ashok Leyland