Ushering eight decades of engineering excellence
Yuvraj Mehta, Head – Corporate Brand Management & Communications. Larsen & Toubro
Excellence is a corporate signature, inscribed deep in the products we make, emblazoned across the projects we build and the services we offer. It’s not just in our offerings, excellence is also written large in the manner in which we deal with our customers, in the way we honour all our commitments and in our visible willingness to go the extra mile.
Where did it all begin? It’s not easy to put your finger at the source of something as indefinable as a company’s culture, but if you thumb back across our pages of history, you can sense patterns of behaviour, observe choices made at crucial juncture and find official remarks that staked our position on critical matters. Put them all together, and the aggregate gives you something close to our collective character – our culture.
Let’s go right back to the days when our company was engaged largely in trading of dairy and chemical plant equipment. We obviously weren’t alone. The competition also sold products from foreign principals, but once deals were done, they generally left their customers to fend for themselves, and got busy in the more lucrative pursuit of new business. Holck-Larsen and Toubro did something different. After the sale was concluded, the partners would return periodically to check if the product was delivering as per expectations and if there was anything more to be done. A minor thing by itself, but it did not go unnoticed, and soon the eponymous partnership began making a name for itself in Indian industry. Our slogan then was ‘In Service lies Success’, and few companies lived their tagline so emphatically.
Driven by People
People are the engines of culture – the throbbing heartbeat that animates systems and everything else that is seen to belong to an organisation. Perhaps that is part of what Holck-Larsen meant when he spoke one of his most memorable lines: ‘Machinery must be there, buildings must be there but without the people – it’s all nothing. People are our only real asset.’ It wasn’t just their capability but their commitment for quality had to transit from manual to mindset, from handbook to heart. That is by no means an easy transition, but it an essential one. Very early we realized that it is was not enough to induct people with a quality mind-set, it was more important to keep alive that commitment through training at all levels.
An Open Mind
A culture is not entirely home-made. Quite early, we realized the importance of keeping windows open so that we could absorb whatever was good in other corporate cultures. To different degrees, we were influenced by the number of companies we interacted with. Arguably, the biggest learning in our formative years came from a venerable manufacturer of tractors. In 1945 L&T secured the dealership for the globally renowned Caterpillar tractors. It extended the company’s reach, enhanced its processes and practices, and reinforced its customer orientation.
Much of our approach and attitude to business flowed from our insistence on taking a long-term perspective. The quick buck, fly-by-night syndrome never seem to have entered our calculations. Our customers too realized that they were in for the long haul. A saying within the Company went: ‘No deal must be concluded except between a happy buyer and a happy seller, and the buyer’s happiness must be a continuous one, with faith in good after sales service.’
No Go to ‘Chalta hai‘
In the early years of India’s industrialisation, quality for many companies was whatever the market would accept. But that is not how L&T saw it. Hansen was a man obsessed, and his obsession centred on quality. Quality in everything that people did – from the flower bed planted outside his office to the products that he and his team would made make. When technicians came to him with early prototypes of the starter they had put together, Hansen would shake his head. ‘Not good enough’, he said. “Throw it away and make another.” Looking ruefully at their efforts, the technicians would protest – this is the best that can be done in India, they said, given our conditions. Hansen simply pointed to the Danish model, and thundered: “if it can be done in Denmark, it can be done in India.’ The technicians would sweat, curse and attempt another, and another… until they finally matched the gold standard of the uncompromising Dane. Gunnar Hansen probably did not realize the implications of what he was doing but he was injecting a vital element in L&T’s quality culture.
Among those whom Gunnar Hansen had interviewed and recruited into L&T was our current Group Chairman A.M. Naik, and he has for long been an evangelist of excellence. In the decades since he took over at the helm of the Company, Mr Naik has infused the entire organization with the realization that quality is an essential prerequisite to gain global acceptance. The growing segment of international business in our revenues tells its own story. The Will and the Skill
Quality also implies an investment in skills. ‘Skill India’ is a term that has lately gained currency. Seven decades before it was coined, L&T had turned its focus on training. In 1951, L&T set up its first training school for technicians and skilled workmen. Youths who enrolled for the four-year course modelled on a Danish training scheme for workmen, received specialised training as well as a stipend. The community benefitted too, for a skill acquired is a life transformed.
The commitment to learning has grown stronger over the years, and has taken new and diverse forms. Take a look at the number of institutions dedicated to training of multiple kinds – all devoted to the goal of making the good better. There is the Leadership Development Academy at Lonavala near Mumbai, a Project Management Institute in Vadodara, Safety Innovation Schools in Hazira and Kanchipuram. Most recently, a unique Skill Trainers Academy has been set up at Madh, Mumbai as part of L&T’s contribution to the cause of ‘Skill India’.
A Moving Target
An occupational hazard of talking about our history and our rich heritage is that it can lull us into complacence. That is risky. History is littered with examples of successful companies of committing the folly of taking their success for granted. Rest too long on your laurels, and you will end up with a grandstand view of your competitors charging ahead. L&T realizes the importance of keeping pace with change. We continue to invest in our facilities and ensure that our technology base is on par with the best in the industry. Along with many other front-ranking companies, we are witnessing the digital dawn and responding actively. Integrating the old and the new, and infusing brick & mortar with digital technologies, we aim to enhance quality and accelerate speed. Excellence is continuous action.
Take one of most prestigious international manufacturing projects in recent times – the cryostat for the ITER project. The goal is to recreate the sun here on earth and generate energy the way the sun does – through nuclear fusion. Many companies from many countries are involved in the global project, and L&T was awarded the contract for building the very heart of the $ 25 billion reactor. The cryostat is a vessel that defies and dwarfs precedent – the biggest, high-vacuum pressure vessel ever built in human history.
Rigour backed by Resolve
Sometimes the most difficult word in the language to articulate is ‘no’. But if excellence is your mission, it means saying ‘no’ frequently and emphatically. ‘No’ to shoddy work, ‘no’ to slipshod planning; ‘no’ to settling for less; ‘no’ to the corner that can be cut because it is unlikely to be noticed. You will also have to face the gauntlet about the purpose of it all. Is it really worthwhile taking all the effort when the customer may not even notice? In other words, ‘Excellence is a lot of effort. Why should we do it? To this, there is only one answer:
Yes, because that is the L&T way.