Swetha Krishnakumar

NexThought Monday: Imaginary Engineers

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on the Villgro Fellows Blog.

I’m an industrial engineer by training, i.e. an “imaginary engineer.” I say that because at Georgia Tech, industrial engineering was the black sheep of engineering. Industrial engineering is basically a misnomer – I’ve never soldered anything, I can’t tell you the difference between C++ and C, and I’ve never worked with “machinery” or anything “industrial”. According to Georgia Tech’s website, industrial engineering is the “[analysis] of complex systems with the intention of improving system performance” keeping in mind “the role of the human decision-maker as key contributor to the inherent complexity of systems.” Being in India, I’m witnessing a veritable treasure trove of both systems that desperately need improvement as well as systems that work unbelievably smoothly given the complexity.

One system that has piqued my interest is the business of the dabbawallahs (literally: “box people”) in Mumbai. Their primary business is, according to Wikipedia, “collecting the freshly cooked food in lunch boxes from the residences of the office workers (mostly in the suburbs), delivering it to their respective workplaces, and returning the empty boxes back to the customer’s residence by using various modes of transport.”

The Nutan Mumbai Tiffin Box Suppliers’ Charity Trust was founded in 1890 and employs about 5000 dabbawallahs who deliver about 200,000 home cooked meals daily to about 80,000 offices for lunch time. Tiffin boxes are collected from the homes, organized at the train station based on final destination, and delivered to the offices by 12:30 pm consistently. After lunch, at around 1:15 pm, the dabbawallahs pick up the Tiffin boxes and return them in the same fashion to the homes before 5:00 pm. To ensure quality, the dabbawallahs use an innovative coding system that provides all of the relevant information for accurate delivery in a simple and easily understandable manner. The dedication to quality has earned these dabbawallahs six sigma (the error rate being less than 1 in 16 million transactions) from the Forbes Group and resulted in about a 10 percent growth rate annually.

Achieving six sigma for a company or organization is an industrial engineer’s dream. Household name companies including AOL and AT&T are still working toward achieving higher levels of quality and customer satisfaction, while a relatively unknown organization in Mumbai has achieved the highest echelons of quality customer service.

With the notoriety of being recognized by Forbes, the dabbawallahs have been guests at a number of management institutes and business schools. One student who heard them lecture noted that “the belief that technology is indispensable to solve complex problems was shattered.” I wholeheartedly agree.

During my time with Villgro, my primary focus has been the customer. From an industrial engineer’s perspective, I want to be able to better serve our customers by improving system performance.

When I first began college, we were constantly assigned textbook problems with endless assumptions that had no connection to real-life problems. During later years of college, we faced complex and real problems with more variables and more uncertainty; these, we would solve using an array of software programs that could handle the complicated mathematics. By graduation, I was convinced that the real world needed software and technology if it ever wanted to address the complex problems it faced. Now, I’m starting to rethink that.

During my time with Villgro, my primary focus has been the customer. From an industrial engineer’s perspective, I want to be able to better serve our customers by improving system performance.

At Sustaintech, I am working to streamline the data collection and analysis process to drive smarter business operations. At the onset, I was convinced that technology held all the answers; technology made things faster and smarter and could only mean good things for a business. So I invested a lot of effort into looking for mobile-based solutions to data collection. However, after some candid discussions, I realized that the cost-benefit analysis did not add up. Most of our sales executives were not SMS savvy, let alone computer or smartphone savvy, and most voice-based solutions were outside of our price range. On top of that, we are not a company that depended on real-time data, so the benefits of a mobile-based solution would be low especially given the amount of training required and the steep learning curve that our sales executives would face. I could not reconcile a solution that would cut into upwards of one hour per day of productive time spent by the sales executives since a mobile solution would increase the amount of time for data entry compared to the handwritten method currently used.

So the solution we have finally settled on is a cloud-based customer relationship management system for small businesses in India. This system will allow management personnel to view and analyze data and reports and use mobile technology to send SMS alerts and reminders to sales executives who would still send in handwritten data on a weekly basis. We found that this was the most balanced and appropriate use of technology in this context.

Systems improvement is not just about applying the newest technology or management principle to an organization. It is about understanding the context, resource constraints, the cost-benefit trade-off, and the customer to devise a solution uniquely appropriate for the organization in question. This, I believe, requires a lot of learning and experimenting and, at the end of the day, imagination. I hope I can use my academics and experiences to truly live up to my designation as an “imaginary engineer.”

Swetha Krishnakumar is a 2011 Villgro Fellow working in business development and operations at Sustaintech, a social enterprise startup selling fuel-efficient cook stoves to the low-income roadside eatery market.

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