I am probably the only person on this planet who took the IIT entrance thrice, despite passing it every time!
I got into IIT Madras the first time, after my class XI. I had my trunk packed and then got cold feet. I gingerly approached my father and told him that I didn’t feel like going. He said, what do you mean? I loved science but not necessarily engineering. By seventh standard, I had a sophisticated chemistry lab at home, had already built a microscope that could magnify things to a 1000x. I spent a worrying amount of time on the roof taking photographs of Saturn! My interest had come from my dad, one of the earliest and brightest scientists at Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), an extraordinarily bright mathematician and a Sanskrit scholar. He, like very few others, was indulgent of my decision to opt out of IIT after my first attempt. “Okay, there is always a next year,” he said.
The next year, after my 12th, I took the exam once again. I didn’t do so well this time. Then, I took the third attempt, got a fantastic rank and went for the field of my choice.
My formative years were spent in Chandigarh, where we moved to when I was in the third standard. I grew up in the shadow of a very talented sister, Malini, who is six and a half years older than me. She had many friends, always ranked first in class and won every prize. I was shy, mediocre in studies and terrible at sports. My mother, a homemaker, used to worry about me.
In class IV, I ranked 11th in a class of 33. Terrified, I didn’t return home that day and instead went home with the rickshaw-wallah who picked me and my friend up from school. My parents called the police and there was much hullabaloo, but I returned the next morning with Ram Lal. The poor man got an earful!
I can’t forget the incident, after all, I lived the first 47 years of my life as programmed by my mother. She had said, “Hard work leads to achievement, achievement leads to recognition and that’s what gives us happiness.” That said, there was a turning point in my life, after my primary school.
I fell sick and could not go to school for a year. That’s when I began reading in earnest and many of those days were spent at this fantastic public library called Tarlok Singh State Library. The books I picked were maybe five years ahead of me, and mostly on science. My school teacher, Mrs Malhotra, noticed this and said I would go on to do great things. It changed the way I looked at myself. Suddenly, I went from being this loser to being the star. After that, I topped my class consistently. So, Mrs Malhotra was the one who had the most influence in my life, other than mom and dad.
IIT was sobering though. I learnt I was bright enough, but my real asset was the will to succeed and the willingness to work devilishly hard. Curiously, if you look at your classmates 35 years later, those you thought would win the Nobel have ended up toiling away into obscurity and the ‘jokers’ took more risks and have ended up doing spectacularly interesting things, such as being entrepreneurs.
After engineering, I headed to Purdue University on scholarship to pursue a PhD. Had a change of heart, once again! I didn’t want a career in research. So, I did my Masters and took a job with a company that made diesel engines called Cummins. It was located in a small mid-western town called Columbus Indiana. My 16 years there was the best start that I could have got.
January 1987. It was orientation day for the new hires including me. J Irwin Miller talked about how he expected us to conduct ourselves. Founded by Miller, Cummins was one of the most value-driven companies in America. He was a real icon in business those days and was even considered as a presidential candidate. One of the things that he said that day was always do what’s right and not what’s convenient: “It won’t be obvious which is which, and it won’t be easy to follow through with it, but that is what we expect you to do.” It’s a learning I can rattle off even 35 years later, because it was drilled into us.
They believed that business is to benefit the community and not so much the shareholders. Cummins was founded to create employment for the youngsters of Southern Indiana. When the company began making engines and couldn’t sell any, they offered farmers a money-back policy. The buyers would use it for a season and return it for a full refund. So, the engines were essentially rented for free. But, no one minded.
A year after working there, I was restless and applied to Harvard Business School. They rejected my application.
But tenacity is my middle name. I marched into the admissions office, asking why I didn’t make it. The woman calmly said that there is nothing interesting about me, that I should have led a team or done something significant to demonstrate leadership. I decided to rectify that and went up to a senior person in Cummins, saying I want to manage something. He said, yeah sure! That will happen in a few years. Wait in line! I said, “No, I need to do it now!”
Out of sheer irritation, he said, look, there’s a small factory that makes fuel-pump components that we are closing down. Nobody wants that job and it’s been open for six months. You can take that if you want. I became a factory manager at 24.
Sheer horror unfolded. It was a plant that was destined for closure, so the workforce was very dispirited and angry. Instead of reassurance, they were given a guy with a funny accent and brown skin. On top of that, I was a first time manager.
I decided to follow my mother’s example. She would go behind the maid and say, “You haven’t swept in that corner… see, I can see the dust there.” The guys on the shop floor would sneak away into the toilet to hide and I would be there to chase them out! It must have been frustrating for them, people in their forties, being herded around by someone in the twenties.
After the first few months, there was a change. Normally, an engineer writes the programme and the operator runs the machine, after loading and unloading the parts or changing the tools. One day, I began to teach the operators how to code, how to make corrections, edits and modifications… it wasn’t rocket science. That small change made a big difference to their morale. One of them cried, a big American guy, saying he learnt more from me than anyone else. The engineers used to look down on the operators and I had broken that barrier.
Somehow, I instinctively knew that they had to feel empowered. On one occasion, I organised for the workers to go and visit other factories to see how things were done there. This had never been done before because you don’t ‘waste’ time and money sending operators on study tours. But, goodwill was generated and it came to my rescue when I hit a really rough patch very soon.
A major quality issue had cropped up. On the assembly line, one of the parts needed modification and I was the only one there. I ran to fix it, along with another guy, and set it right by drilling a hole into it. Those days, there was a union rule that engineers and management will not touch machines if an operator is not there. It was to secure the jobs of workers. If the engineers started running machines, then what happens to the operators? So the union leader filed a case against me. The next day, the shop floor guys came back. They unanimously said they would not support that grievance. It was a first in the history of the company.
Turning things around is not hard, because that’s what you’re taught to do — how you improve quality, productivity, take down costs and so on. The real task is how do you get people to want to do it? The important part is to get everybody working reasonably hard towards a common outcome; the rest is textbook stuff.
I wrote about this incident in an article titled “Cummins engine flexes its factories”, which was published in Harvard Business Review in 1990. At 27, I became the youngest ever writer in HBR. I flew straight into HBS. Normally, you get your recommendation from the most important person you know. Mine was written by Larry Platt, the head of the labour department, and that really got attention at Harvard.
This is part one of a three part series. Stay tuned for part two and part three.