Tag Archives: Services

What I gained by switching from #Uber/ #Ola to the #MumbaiLocal

 

One of the small joys of living in a metro is the ability to hail a taxi easily and go about one’s business without requiring too much logistical planning. The advent of #Uber and #OlaCabs on the Mumbai public transport landscape made this even more convenient. For somebody (like me) who commutes upwards of 50 kilometres daily, this availability is a blessing. What, then, made me give up this uber convenience (pun fully intended) and regress, in many ways, to the popular yet infamous #MumbaiLocal train?

The answer lies in yet another characteristic of modern urban living – a sedentary lifestyle and…sigh… the resulting lower back pain. I realised I needed to change something drastically in my daily routine to overcome this situation. The solution came to me easily but I still took over six months to implement it.

I’ve come to the wonderful realization that those 30 extra minutes each day have been well worth the time.

Now, the commute to and from my place of work is not a tough one, by Mumbai standards, but the workplace being located at one end of the linear public transport route map of the city means that the nearest suburban railway station is about a kilometre and a half away, a 17-minute walk (as per Google Maps). This number is not frightening for the average Mumbaikar, I know, but to somebody who had happily adjusted to the ‘no-local-train-travel-in-the-past-10-years’ status, it did seem a tad challenging, not to mention the ‘adventurous spirit’ that one has to cobble up for the local train journey itself. Add to that number, the 10-minute kilometre-long walk from the train station at the other end to my residence, and I was looking at an increase of about 60% to my total one-way commute time, an additional 30 minutes. The math should not have made sense. Yet I lumbered ahead, all in the hope that my lumbar, at least, would applaud the decision. I decided to undertake at least the return leg of my commute by local train each workday.

I’ve kept up the practice for over a month and a half, and I’ve come to the wonderful realization that those 30 extra minutes each day have been well worth the time. I’ve gained in mind, body and spirit.

Mind

I am able to use the time on the train to (finally) catch up on my reading. Books were always a close companion on the train. These days the Kindle does just as well.

I also use the time, when I don’t find space convenient enough to read, to mentally organise my to-do list and prioritise my activities for the next day.

I’ve discovered parts of the city that I never knew before in my search for the shortest/ fastest/ cleanest route to and from the train station.

Body

This was, of course, the primary reason for making the switch – to get some exercise for the limbs. The lower back pain is history. The heart and lungs seem to have become stronger. A flight of stairs doesn’t seem daunting in the least anymore. And did I mention the mildly pleasant 3-lb weight loss?…

I also get some weight training in because of the 10-lb backpack I carry since it can weather the jostles and shoves of fellow train riders better than an elaborate office bag.

I feel more agile and alert since being on any Mumbai road requires you to be mindful of the next passer-by rushing past you, the large automobile merrily threatening you even at pedestrian crossings, the stray dog that decides to leap across exactly the same puddle at exactly the same time that you are about to hop over it, or the water tanker backing into a no-vehicle one-way street.

Spirit

I am able to use the time on the road to talk to myself and go over the events of the day/ week, introspect on what went well and what needs to get better.

I get to experience and enjoy the elements, whether it is the marvellous sunshine or the refreshing monsoon shower. It reminds me of how much natural wealth we have as residents of a tropical coastal city and how much of it we miss being ensconced in our air-conditioned cars and taxis.

I also get to mingle with the ‘average consumer’ of this large economy, who often becomes the subject of my work-related study and writing. I not only get to observe their interactions but also partake in the commercial activity in daily essentials that occurs on this critical lifeline of Mumbai, away from malls, e-commerce portals, and, I daresay, GST worries…

While these are the most critical takeaways for me, there has also been a side benefit – the substantial savings in travel costs. For the cost of a single Uber ride, I get a two-way unlimited use season pass for a whole month!

What’s not to love about the #MumbaiLocal?!

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Old Economy, New Businesses: #RuralWork in India

Judging by the comments and enthusiasm that my post on #RuralLiving drew, it seems to me that the idea of living in India’s villages is romantic enough for many people. Therein lies the irony – it is romantic, but is it achievable? After all, one can’t subsist on clean air and water (seeing as India is not turning socialist anytime soon). However, therein also lies the opportunity. Let me elaborate.

 

On the one hand, it may be true that today every other graduate of the hallowed IITs/ IIMs/ Ivy League or such other institutions is not a jobseeker but a (wannabe) job-creator and going down the entrepreneurship route. On the other hand, one in five 30-something yuppies, wants to turn farmer in the second innings of her/his career.

 

Not too long ago, becoming a farmer was the final resort for the lowest of the low offspring of a farmer and even (s)he would have considered at least one other avenue before signing up for it. The lure of city-life, with its bright lights, shopping options, a service culture (unheard of in the villages), and above all, a much higher income, was something every child who was born towards the end of the Cold War period yearned for.

 

And yet, for the same reasons that #RuralLiving is a massive innovation opportunity, it is also a tremendous business opportunity. It is possible to make money in our villages too, and not simply through the so-called (real estate) “development” projects (perhaps the last thing rural India needs at the moment, but that discussion could be the subject of another post). Expectedly, the two key sectors to focus on are agriculture and services.

 

India continues to be known as an agrarian economy but agriculture is rapidly losing its place as rampant labour-drain from villages forces people to look to other sources of livelihood. After all, how can you till the soil if there’s nobody to till it? Yet, if ever there was a time for agriculture to own its moment in the sun, it is now, what with question of food security looming over our heads in the near future. Of course, the challenges for agriculture in India have changed and so the strategy and methods for agriculture must change too. It needs to be accorded the same level of importance as any other science.

 

What agriculture in India misses is more than simply labour – it lacks a sound systematic knowledge base, appropriate technologies, a focus on scalability, a focus on financials, models to rationalise producer-to-consumer hops, and models to allow non-farmers to participate in the process, to name just a few challenges. But these gaps are precisely where new businesses can flower. Hosachiguru is one such catalyst in the agriculture paradigm that is now being defined.

 

Scalability or the lack of it has been pointed out too often as the chief culprit in the non-story that Indian agriculture has become. But one look at Desai Fruits & Vegetables will tell you how focus, perseverance and horticultural technology can work wonders and still leave the space open for several more F&V kings. Encouragingly, corporates like Mahindra have taken the leap in the dairy sector. But with agriculture being so vast, there are many such opportunities not just in horticulture and dairy, but also in floriculture, pisciculture, cattle rearing, etc.

 

Let’s look at the services sector then. Most people seem to believe either that people in rural areas don’t need services or that a service provider will not thrive there. But, consider this. Over half of the upper income households in India live in rural areas. A higher proportion of rural households are D-I-N-K than urban households. The demand-pull for automobile ownership (passenger vehicles) is expected to be equal for rural and urban areas in this decade. Rural incomes and rural discretionary spending have been rising at a faster clip than urban incomes and similar urban spending.

 

Yet, the rural population is forced to take this discretionary surplus to the cities because there simply aren’t enough avenues, not even essential services, in the rural areas to spend on. A vehicle owner in a rural area must travel at least 50 km, to the nearest service workshop, to get his/ her car serviced or repaired. She must visit the next city to get a salon treatment. He must plan his next city trip such that he can make a visit to the laundry to drop off his ‘dry-clean only’ wardrobe items. She must do justice to her aggregated shopping list for clothes, shoes and beauty essentials when she visits the sole cinema theatre in the city to catch the latest Bollywood release, which will run only for a week at the theatre. Even routine maintenance and repair activities requiring the skills of a plumber, electrician or carpenter require dialing into a city directory for summoning required help.

 

These simple enough routine activities for an urbanite require significant planning, long-distance commuting and an enormous amount of time for the upper income ruralite. Admittedly, it would take an innovative business model, novel channel marketing tactics, and a long-term horizon to make services economically sustainable in the rural areas. But surely the reward should be worth the risk once a solution to the aggregation and scalability challenges is achieved.

 

More power to our villages!

Design Thinking: The Key to a Superior Service Experience

I had the opportunity to visit the office of the Registration and Stamp Duty Department of Government of Maharashtra recently. If it had not been for the signboard outside the office, I would have thought that I was in a waiting room at a local railway station. As a consultant who routinely deals with process redesign and efficiency improvement, I took a keen interest in observing the layout of the place and the movement of people in and out of the office.

 

The non-air-conditioned room, which had a single unmanned entry/ exit point, was about 20 feet long and 15 feet wide, with a partition halfway along its width and a pillar in the middle of one of the halves of the partition. Rows of four-seat benches squeezed into the space on either side of the pillar. The pillar had extendable shelves, which served as tabletops for persons who had forms to fill out at the last minute, sticking out towards the benches. The combined width of the pillar and these shelves formed a narrow passage for persons streaming in and out of the room, about forty people at a given moment. A part of the other half was enclosed for an unknown purpose – there were no signs on the enclosure. There were no washrooms, pantry, or even a water dispenser visible.

 

A door, vaguely marked ‘Office’, at the edge of the room led to the space where the actual registration procedure took place. A small indicator on the outside announced the token number of the person next in queue. I could not make out how the tokens were generated or when and where one procured them. Inside the ‘Office, all the three walls facing the door were lined with unmarked open racks and shelves of paper files, almost reaching the 18 feet high ceiling.

 

About six officious staff sat at the two desks facing the door, surrounded by a dozen clerks, peons and service staff. Apparently, these persons knew where they should be positioned in this vague room without any signages (barring the printed pages announcing that one of the services was now available online). There were persons who came in when their token was announced and looked around inquiringly as to where and how to proceed; these were the hapless ‘customers’ of the Registration service.

 

Another group of about half a dozen apparently important persons flitted in and out of the room and occupied the space in front of the desks. They seemed to know what was going on and who was responsible for what. They also ushered the ‘customers’ to the appropriate seat at a desk as required. I reckoned that these were the ‘agents’, the ‘know-alls’, the ‘catalysts’ that kept the process flowing smoothly, the ‘oil’ that greased the government machinery. Without them, the so-called ‘system’ would collapse.

 

The 10 feet by 15 feet space of the office was, hence, teeming with over thirty people at any point in time. A 1.5 ton capacity air-conditioner tried in vain to cool the air.

 

I wondered… for a service that apparently processes about four thousand documents in a day, valued at about INR 30 Crores (US$ 4.5 Mn), is this the best state of infrastructure and process that the government could provide?

 

Contrast this with the experience at the spanking new processing centres of the Regional Passport Office in Mumbai. Online access and registration for appointments, tight security and screening at the entry gates, clearly designated and marked zones for different parts of the processing cycle, viz. presentation of documents, checking of documents, approval of passport, authorization of passport, issuance of passport, and exit clearance, all in a seamless manner. There are also water coolers, washrooms with access for the disabled, a well-stocked cafeteria, a baby-care area, a photocopier, and stationery supply. Many thanks to TCS, who streamlined the process and possibly designed the layout for the facility.

 

Process design always fascinated me but these two experiences at opposite ends of a spectrum really got me thinking about how critical design is to a great customer experience for any service provider. These six key aspects typically go into incorporating design thinking in processes for a service:

 

  1. Separate areas for distinctly different activities

Activities could be different in that they require different equipment, skills, lead times, validation times, mechanical inputs, authorization, etc. It is best to mark these separately. The Passport Office exemplifies this beautifully. Retail banks have always followed this practice.

 

  1. Separate entry points from exit points

This is an extremely critical requirement where movement of persons is concerned, especially in areas that require high security. But the biggest advantage served by this tactic is the avoidance of jams in the process, creating a more equal service experience for all. Think about an airport or a subway system.

 

What struck me most when I first travelled on the London Underground (now called the Tube, but I’m old-fashioned like that) was how I never had to be apprehensive about somebody running into me from the opposite direction. It was such a refreshing experience after several years as a commuter on Mumbai Local Trains.

 

  1. Maximise the output of bottlenecks by reducing redundant processes

Bottlenecks can often derail a process. Airlines have tried and often succeeded in managing this. Take the airline checking-in process, for instance. Undoubtedly, the most time-consuming of all airline processes (if we leave out security checks at JFK!), this process has been made leaner by resorting to options such as online check-in & kiosk check-in, and separate counters for frequent flyers or premium class flyers or passengers with special needs. Of course, there is tremendous scope for improvement.

 

  1. Signpost important areas, especially ‘special needs’ areas

Regardless of how inefficient a process a may be, this simple trick can alleviate a lot of customer chagrin. Human tendency is to control one’s environment as far as possible. Just the thought that one knows where one is relative to another place puts an element of control into the customer’s hands. Munich Airport does this very well. It is also one of the few hub airports that cares to put out enough recliners and mark quiet zones for long layover passengers.

 

On the other hand, a baby products retailer that I happened to visit seemed to have missed a critical opportunity because its circulation space was too narrow to allow the passage of baby strollers that it retails! As if that were not enough, its baby care room had neither any ventilation nor an air-conditioner, not even a fan!

 

  1. Mark designated spaces to catch the overflow

Any process could be subject to overflows every once in a while, where its throughput gets challenged. It helps to think ahead about such eventualities and design spaces that can handle the spillover. Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital has combined this challenge with addressing a real customer need, when including a large cafeteria with several options of cuisines. It automatically reduces crowds loitering in passageways while giving people a sense of comfort and caring. Dubai Airport, on the other hand, has channelled this opportunity into a revenue earner. One would be hard put to find a place to sit at this airport. By making most of its circulation space a shopping zone, all spills generate bills!

 

  1. Make space for public conveniences

The need to ingest and expel are two of the most basic human needs. Making these facilities available to those you serve shows thoughtfulness. An unexpected benefit is that you are likely to meet a more amicable customer rather than an irate/ frustrated/ desperate one.

 

Whether a business is offline or online, the customer and her needs remain the same. Great service design could significantly differentiate your value proposition.