Lessons from the railways on organisational reform

India is a nation on the move; a rapid and visible move as witnessed in the past five years and expected with greater vigour in the next five. The transformation of organisations is the only way forward. Transformation and a complete one at that, generally stimulates delivery to an extent that cannot be imagined otherwise. Unfortunately, the general mindset believes more in flogging the system for enhancing delivery, that does work but only for marginal improvements, not for quantum growth.

Rejection of the status quo is the hallmark of true leadership at political, bureaucratic and corporate levels. A true leader looks at sustainable change that only transformation, or “organisational reforms” can bring and, for that to begin, a tremendous sense of urgency needs to be established first. There is a need to establish that business as usual cannot continue and complacency will kill slowly but surely. Fortunately for the nation, the existing dispensation believes in the necessity of change.

The desire to excel, propelled by sheer willpower, is the most potent of all potions. A combination of absolute trust and a common shared goal propels organisations in the right direction.

The Indian Railways recently went through a very powerful dose of transformation when it attempted organisational reforms — cultural, procedural and structural — on an unprecedented scale. Driven by the board and piloted by a very able set of officers that constituted the transformation cell, the railways witnessed phenomenal changes in a a year that transcended zonal and divisional boundaries and impacted the ground level workers. It was indeed an attempt to simplify the complex bureaucracy and deliverance, do away with frills and impart a sense of pride in the entire workforce.

An organisation is defined by its culture. While the beginning is generally clean, complacency, materialism, ego, and a lack of concern for the work environment, among various factors tend to influence the organisational culture over time. This culture directly influences the morale and the pride that people have in their organisation. A no-frills culture that has a catalytic impact on deliverance is to be aspired for, but is rarely achieved.

In over four decades of my association with the government machinery, I never had the occasion to attend even a single official meeting in which the welfare and the need for an ethical conduct was discussed. Therefore, while mundane issues are given cognisance, cultural issues weren’t. This is why one of my first orders was cultural — to ban the well-entrenched practice of giving bouquets, gifts and protocol across the organisation. I have always been surprised by the mistrust that many organisations nurture. The best organisations are, however, those that maintain a perfect balance between authority and accountability, yet it is so very rare to find them. The railway transformation cell, headed by Sudhir Kumar, therefore, initiated a major effort to empower all field units with an unprecedented delegation of authority — something that could not be done in last 70 years was achieved in just one, and this reflected in the vastly improved pace of infrastructure creation, upgradation and maintenance.

New courses on leadership, capacity building and emotional intelligence, along with initiatives like project Saksham to train the entire staff, and mission Satyanishtha, aimed at inculcating ethical conduct, also started making a difference in the railway system.

While there needs to be pressure to perform, we also need to create an environment in which people are both comfortable and fearless, and do not have any qualms about standing up or doing what is right. A fearful employee devoid of courage can never be an asset. In order to do this, we must encourage the top management to freely mingle at all levels of work. We also need to encourage small successes and appreciate our employees whenever they succeed, even if it is a routine activity done well. What needs to percolate is the thought that good work needs to be actively and continuously encouraged. We have seen that regular felicitation of even the lowest rung railway employees in the chairman’s chamber, for their exemplary work while on duty has made an impact. Reforming the processes related to decision making is paramount. Simplification of processes and having absolute trust in people hold the key.

The fact that structures are not sacrosanct and need to adapt to the culture and the processes and not the other way around is also a very important learning. Organisational reforms is indeed the way forward.

First Published:
Jun 03, 2019 21:35 IST

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