Mediocrity And Genius

Productive mediocrity requires discipline of an ordinary kind. It is safe and threatens no one. Nothing will be changed by mediocrity; mediocrity is completely predictable. It doesn’t make the powerful and self-satisfied feel insecure. It doesn’t require freedom, because it doesn’t do anything unexpected.

Mediocrity is the opposite of what we call “genius.” Mediocrity gets perfectly mundane things done on time. But genius is uncontrolled and uncontrollable. You cannot produce a work of genius according to a schedule or an outline. As Leonardo knew, it happens through random insights resulting from unforeseen combinations. Genius is inherently outside the realm of known disciplines and linear career paths. Mediocrity does exactly what it’s told, like the docile factory workers envisioned by Frederick Winslow Taylor.



To-Do – 2009

While we have had a good run in the past couple of years, the economic downturn has put a dampner on what otherwise could have been a great year. As of now we seem all set for a mere 4% growth. This too has a probability of about 50%. Some argue that we could have done better, others say we have done better than expected. I for now will let these numbers aside and concentrate on what we can do to strengthen our structure. So i came up with a list of To Do Items for the year 2009.

Since any list should be specific and am a strong believer in targets with dates i figured we need a list which will not just contain random or vague ideas but specific commitments. This :”improve quality” should be “improve quality by 25%” which could translate to “reduce rejections by 25%” assuming rejections are the only barometer to quality in your organization.

In no particular order,

  1. Have an employee feedback system in place, at all levels. We currently have a very rudimentry feedback system.
  2. Improve Quality by 25%. note to self: Pay attention to number of rejections! Measure number of rework items.
  3. Reduce Delivery Times by another 50% – reduce communication times. Insist on drawings within 15 working days. Setup a measurable TAT (Turn-Around-Time) system.
  4. Setup a Sales and Marketing team by September. This includes hiring, training and introductions to a few customers.
  5. Improve storage techniques on the floor, get wooden floor stands for cylinders.
  6. Greater amount of labelling on the floor. Label all ‘stands’, all items in store as well as on floor.
  7. Get the workshop painted by October.
  8. Get dashboards for Stores, Design, Quality, Production and Subcontracting in order and in place by 1st April 2009. Atleast begin and alter as days go by.
  9. Arrange for a cooling solution inside factory before summer.
  10. Reduce Operating Costs by 25%. – in tandem with quality initiative, employ a rudimentry just-in-time procedure. Reduce time lag as much as possible at all levels.
  11. Setup Inspection And Testing area by April 2009.
  12. Extend the workshop as per the layout by architect. – April 2010.
  13. Finalize and Approve the drawing by architect to extend the workshop – April 1st 2009.
  14. Complete the design document with detailed procedures – April 1st 2009.

That should do for now. I will add to the list as days go by. I would also want to revisit this list and review it so that i do not loose track of it myself. so long.. !

    The House

    It had been a few hours. It could have been a few weeks or a few years for all i cared. My elbows hurt by the harsh wooden table. The room was sparse and had a woody smell about it. I looked up to see a thatched roof. It had wooden planks built across the walls. This house was probably built many decades ago. People no longer seem to make such houses anymore.

    The floor had the reddish tinge, the kind which wears off to take a pale brown. Had it been new it would have rubbed off on my feet. The room was about 15 feet long and about 10 feet wide, three doors one on each side except the one on my left. I don’t see anything clearly outside. My view si hazy. The side on my right also had two windows right beside each side of the door. It looked archaic, the doors would have been closed years ago, it didn’t matter. I was bored.

    I got up and pulled open the door behind me. Sun light warmed up my face, for a second i stood there transfixed, soaking myself in, feeling the warmth creep into my body. It felt good, warm, I just stood there with my eyes closed for a few minutes. I opened it to see yellow paddy fields for as far as the eye could see. It wasn’t yellow, it was golden, the sun’s rays brought out the colour really well.

    I half expected a tree somewhere in the field, mostly in the center, humans always loved symmetry. It makes them feel stable, balanced. I couldn’t quite place the feeling. I felt warm, a little dazed but definitely happy. What was i happy about?? I didn’t have a reason, it just felt good. I felt free, yes .. an unencumbered view for miles, it made me feel free.

    I didn’t want to venture out, i was half afraid i would destroy the vision. Maybe the vision would not live up to my expectations. I wanted a cigarette. I looked around but the room was empty. I put in both my palms inside my trouser pockets, a bit lazily, a bit to stretch my arms, it felt nice. I found a cigarette packet in my right pocket along with a match. Funny i have not smoked in quite a while now.

    The house suddenly seemed higher. It seemed higher than earlier. The field towards the far end seemed to just dip a little lower. They dipped a little more. I felt high, i thought it was the cigarette. I realized i have not lit one yet. The house felt as if it was on top a hill. I lit my cigarette and inhaled deeply. It screwed the view, i threw the cigarette down, then wondered whether i should have stubbed it.

    I realised it didn’t really matter. I felt the light breeze hit my face, it hit because it began abruptly. I wished to have the moment last forever, but feared it wont. Funny i always seemed to have thought of happiness as short lived. Now why would that be so?

    The house seen from afar had a very woody, creaky, slightly burnt exterior. It could have been called a cabin, it really was only a cabin. You need a few basic necessities to make a house. like people to live in for instance. Nobody lives in a cabin. The sun at the far end gave the house a slightly sinister look. It’s funny that on such a beautiful day, amidst such a beautiful field, amongst the gold tinged afternoon, i see cabin which is cold and dark.


    I see a path amidst the field, it is horizontal to my vision and stretches all the way to the far right from the far left. The path is probably dusty, i might see a car there some day blowing a little cloud of dust. It might probably blow a horn, the ones which you never hear on a city street. City horns are always harsh. They; like their owners are noisy, loud and very much against tranquility.

    I saw a car right then. It was a taxi cab the one with the yellow top and black body. They always remind me of Bombay. This one had a horn just as harsh! I had begin to cringe with the noise, the endless cacophony of people jostling around among the streets, the mutterings, the nothings, the chatter, the voices. It all came in suddenly as i woke up with a start. For a second, i was trying to think, where was i?
    It was morning mayhem at my house. My mom oscillated between ironing her blouse and the kitchen. She was grumbling about the maid not coming in on time. Dad called out again for me, it disturbed the inner tranquil i had every morning. He has been doing this every time for 28 years now. 28 years!! Why did i come back? Why did i have to choose my parents place of all people? Could i not have rented out an apartment? But then i would not be saving as much money now would i?

    I had peace for a few years, a home away from home is what i had wanted and what i had. A few years of bliss! Didn’t i love them? I did, i knew i did because i was angry when BobaMama had an altercation with my mom. I wanted to protect her, i had wished him away. Didn’t work. My dad looked really tired. He didn’t really need to work. But then he did, if only to protect his sanity. I wished he could and would relax a little more. But wishes never really come true.

    I pushed my groggy self towards the bathroom and about five minutes later emerged thinking i should not have spent so much time watching movies into the night. They screw up my sleep time. And sleep-times are important. Come to think of i, my sleep times are always invariably screwed. I find new un-inspiring ways to screw them.

    Like i watched two movies back to back until 3.30 am and had to wake up at 7 feeling drunk. Then there was a time when i read late into the night reading Ayn Rand, arguing over her book with myself, fighting over it in my mind. Twice i had concluded Ayn Rand was really just a smart woman who came up with something sensible. Twice i changed it to, she was super smart and bold even if bit of a sensationalist. I argued into the wee hours of the morning and hit the bed at about seven in the morning. Woke up at five past eight. I felt dead!!

    Being dead is a good feeling i think. I could not feel the ground much, i could pretty much not feel anything. I remember this feeling from many years ago when i had smoked weed. It had an uplifting feeling. ‘DeaD’ wasn’t really uplifting, it was pretty much nothing actually. I was off to work in another hour and half. Life seemed to take over after this point. Funny it’s my life but it half seems to be controlled by factors i really purport to control. How is that for irony?

    Managing Priority

    One of the prime challenges we had been facing were concerned with priority. People just do not seem to understand priority.

    Lonely Planet

    Traditionally priority has to be assigned by a person ‘in the know’ or by the team lead. He establishes the process and sets it in motion. The others follow the leader and work runs smoothly. So we hope!

    Quite often people are slaves to old bad habits. And these habits die really really hard. We found that most people seemed to process materials on a first cum first basis instead of establishing priority. Since we knew we had to establish priority early, we came out with a monthly list of items with dates sorted from the immediate to later.

    To have a check and make sure that we do not screw up anywhere we got people to sit together once a week and discuss the items to be taken up from the list, the following week. This is in sync with the PDCA cycle. We found that people invariably took up items which were the easiest to procure than the ones which had to be completed immediately.

    Week after week we missed priority after priority until the ones marked immediate almost always bombed on our heads. Finally we decided to adhere to the list from top to bottom strictly in our weekly meetings. Things seem to have looked up since then. We are a tad slower and its difficult and a constant watch is needed to nudge the people in the right direction, but atleast we got it right this time.

    Customer Satisfaction And Revenue

    I hate bank X.

    The employees of bank X were rated on their ability for higher number of ‘product sales’. As is the norm, the bank reviewed it’s employees vis-a-vis revenue generated.

    This is akin to a local restaurant selling a large number of dinner plates in an effort to improve revenues but by compromising on quality. Restaurants are known by their food, ambiance and in general hospitality.

    I do not intend to compare the hospitality and/or service industries. But this does warrant attention whether the revenue expectations levels by promoter and the satisfactions levels the customer expects from the company are aligned or should they be aligned?

    Customers who will not hesitate to voice their opinion about what they think about your product/service and even sport a signboard to your competitor.

    The bank had no system in place which measured customer satisfaction levels per employee(info-courtesy a friend who worked for the bank). A bit of googling helped me.

    They may well do to read this(pdf) and see if it applies to them.

    You can find a more pointed article on customer satisfaction in banks here(pdf). This professor has a view on the topic.

    After a year of bad service i decided to close my peanut worth savings account with them and opened a new one with a larger more aggressive bank. I am a satisfied customer today.

    Checks In A System

    Lack of a robust process brings out chinks in your system in unpleasant ways. The incident below is a classic example of such a case.

    Our company had a long history of relationship with our subcontractors and had a certain element of trust relationship with them. Quite often we took whatever they said at face value specially regarding the amount of material lying with them. There was no physical verification and hardly any checks/preventive measures built into the system.

    We recently found that a subcontractor had been hoarding our material and selling it off in the open market. It took an enterprising individual to catch the subcontractor red handed.

    Mr. X was in charge of subcontracting. While there was no conclusive evidence against X of being hand in gloves with the erring subcontractor we didn’t initiate any legal recourse against him. But we had to let him go.

    People in our company incorrectly assumed that the reason for our action was him being corrupt. My contention is maybe he was BUT maybe he was not!

    The reason for his dismissal was not based on him being corrupt, it was based on his lack of diligence in such a responsible role. He had failed in his duties towards the company. As a professional he was totally in control of all subcontracting work and was expected to keep track of flow of all materials within and outside the factory. He was not only unable to bring such a discrepancy in our system to our notice but also tried to blame someone else for the faux pas!!

    As one amongst the management, i admit, we are to blame too for not having a system in place to prevent this incident. As a learning we have come up with the following points.

    1. List Of Pending Materials

    This list should come out as frequently as possible and can be used quite effectively for follow-up. This seems commonsense but for a small company even this was unheard of until now!

    2. Physical Audit

    Conduct a physical verification of materials lying with the subcontractors on a quarterly basis. The audit should be conducted randomly once a month without announcement.

    3. Get Them To Specialize

    Restrict subcontractors to two or three type of jobs and if possible with two or three customers. This will help us in multiple ways,

    1. They get to be experts in their allotted job-work.
    2. Improvement in quality as we can goad them into buying the appropriate measuring instruments.
    3. We know immediately who is handling what at any given point in time just by the job and customer.

    4. Push Not Pull

    update: We had to junk this idea as it increases inventory.

    (Not to be confused with the push-pull system in marketing)

    Send across the jobs to the subcontractors instead they coming in to take away materials. This would be difficult to implement on an existing system, but the benefits are obvious.

    1. Nobody gets to hoard thus doing away with one more inefficiency.
    2. We decide the flow of materials. Will also help us put in taps to decrease/increase flow as we wish!
    3. There is very little scope of any influence of our subcontracting in-charge by our subcontractors.

    Get them to sign each time as a sign of receipt of material. This will also act as a proof and will also be the pending list(on a given date) as mentioned earlier!!

    5. Improve Ties

    While a system can be improved and rebuilt over and over again, the foundation of any business relationship is trust from both the parties and trust alone will stand in good in the long run.

    This list is not exhaustive and is a work in progress for the time being. Any suggestions or ideas are always welcome at

    Delivery Double Penalty

    One of our customers recently remarked that he wanted to reduce his follow up visits to our plant as it wasted his as well as our time.

    Another of our customers sent us mail asking us to instruct our bankers to accept a 3% penalty on our bill for late delivery.


    The Connection

    The first one is obvious.

    Each time a customer calls or visits us, at least, one resource has to attend to him or his call. The objective of the call is just to inquire about the status or for a follow-up of a particular order. e.g. Thee last time a customer walked in we had planner + manager + production in charge in attendance.

    This means our resource is basically rendered useless by one engagement instance with the customer. If it’s a phone call it lasts for 3-5 minutes, if it’s a visit, it lasts for anything between 3-4 hours.

    Some customers call as well as visit, some customers only call.

    Now multiply this figure by a couple of hundred customers each year! So by any scale, we have already lost hundreds of productive hours.

    So each customer blunts our ability to serve them by a penalty on our productivity.


    Graph is for demonstration purposes only.

    Reducing Productivity over increasing amounts of Phone Calls and Visits.

    All the more reason to improve delivery schedule; don’t you think??

    Always Process Never People

    How to not forget where you kept your keys. How to not forget paying any particular bill.

    Now this is what most people do,

    They keep the keys in the same place everyday, some place easily in sight while on the move.

    They either pay it as soon as the bill arrives or keep a particular day of the month for paying bills.

    The first one is the most effective because it almost always works. The second one is contingent upon our disposition to do the earlier assigned work right away.

    Almost always its the process which is at fault and not people!

    Single Personality

    There was a time when i used to work for a BIG company. I was paid a decent amount of money. I could afford a reasonably good lifestyle. But it was also a time when i had few pals and i had to drag myself to work 60% of the days.

    I had colleagues then i had friendly colleagues then i had one or maybe two friends! Now i have almost all the staff as pals and i have never ever dragged myself to work. I enjoy the banter, the glib talk, the little fun we keep having over tea.

    We have also posted a healthy growth over the past few months. I think the above two aspects i.e. we having fun and accomplish good work at the same time have been instrumental.

    The clinching factor is not “fun + work“. It’s all of us coming to work with our own personalities. We are much likeable and agreeable in person than our work lives! This way we like each other and enjoy each others company. Which indirectly makes us more productive!!

    Not having a work mode translates into living a better and happier life. We display the same emotions which we would have displayed out of work. We crib openly about work load, sometimes about pay. I know i get to hear the most of it as iam the boss!!

    This might be a lop sided view of my world, but hey i still love it!!

    Pseudo Jobs

    There is an update please see below.

    We have a man in our machine shop. He has been working with this company for more than a decade. He began as a ‘helper‘; then graduated to work on the drilling machine and later in assembly. Now he is a staff member and is in charge of assembly.

    He was promoted time and again in spite of other people being around because he was diligent as a worker. He took pride in his work. He was honest and a man of integrity.

    His job now, is to collect materials and make them available for assembly. We call them collectively, Assembly Items. The items are scattered throughout the factory floor due to different processes and thus different machine work and thus different locations.

    His job takes him hours just to collate one set. Imagine the productivity hours lost.

    Collation of items should be imbibed into the process rather than have someone find and then collate it. Basically his job is redundant and is a useless activity. What we have done by promoting him is KILL his productivity. His job is a ‘pseudo job‘.

    There are numerous such instances of productive people turned unproductive due to an un thoughtful promotion. In the above case if we decide to rectify the process and change the layout and in general make changes which will eliminate this pseudo job, his job will be rendered useless which is undesirable for such a worker.

    This is a classic case where appreciation has become a bane for the incumbent.

    update: There is a name for such phenomena, The Peter’s principle.

    The principle holds that in a hierarchy members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent (their “level of incompetence”), and there they remain.

    Peter’s Corollary states that “in time, every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties” and adds that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence”.