Human Relations at Work
12 June 1993

Shop floor disruption led to training programmes in 'self-motivation' at Tata's flagship truck and bus company in India.India embarked on the road of heavy industrialization when her first steel ingots rolled out in Jamshedpur, Bihar, in 1912. Around the steel plant has grown a city of 1.2 million people, home to two of the largest private sector companies in India--Tata Steel (Tisco) and Tata Engineering (Telco). They are the flagships of an industrial empire that has spawned a vast range of goods and services--textiles and hydroelectric power, locomotives, trucks and buses, chemicals, cosmetics and computers, hotels and airlines.

Tata's founder was a visionary, one of the most forward looking of India's industrial pioneers. Jamshetji Tata (1839-1904), after whom Jamshedpur is named, held that India should walk tall in the family of nations. He also regarded the health and welfare of his employees as 'the sure foundation of our prosperity'. Ever since, Tata industries have been renowned for their commitment to their workforce.1

Tata companies virtually run the city, providing employment, housing, hospitals, schools and social welfare. Little wonder that Tisco and Telco have an enviable industrial relations record, Tata Steel being strike free for nearly 70 years. Telco, however, was not always so lucky. A crippling 48-day strike in 1969 and a series of shop-floor battles between rival groups of workers in the early 1970s warned management that 'we were far too distant from our men to liaise with them,' said Sarosh Ghandy, till recently Resident Director of Telco in Jamshedpur.

Five strikes in 1973 disrupted production of engine blocks and cylinder heads in the melting shop of Telco's foundry. Two groups of workers battled for union control on the shop floor of this major Tata enterprise, which makes three quarters of all the commercial vehicles on India's roads and is one of the world's largest truck manufacturers. Production was so low in those days that management planned to transfer work to their Pune plant 1,000 miles away. One director said it would be more profitable to grow crops. Men carried knives and guns and during the night shift violence broke out. Armed police had to intervene.

New on the scene was an engineering trainee, Kiran Gandhi, who had recently graduated with first class honours from the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay. Gandhi had gone into industry believing that it held a key to India's development. He had also found, through attending Moral Re-Armament (MRA) conferences, 'a way of relating to people of all backgrounds'. Now he found himself in the midst of the troubles in Telco's melting shop. Surely, he thought, in this situation 'there must be God's plan'. He set out to befriend the leaders of the two union factions.

V N Prasad, a union committee member (shop steward), was shovelling coke into a furnace when Gandhi first talked to him. Prasad's impression was of a young man from a high society family. 'His father was a top executive. But he invited me to his home, which was a big surprise for me, an ordinary worker. His mother was kind and brought me snacks. Then he visited my wife and children and we became very close. This helped me to think again about my political opponents.'

Gandhi also got to know C P Singh, who was later to become Assistant Secretary of the Telco Workers' Union. At that time he was one of the faction who fought against Prasad, believing he had not been tough enough over wage demands. Singh expressed to Gandhi concern over wastage of company materials. 'I never thought that workmen were so concerned,' responded Gandhi, who apologized for his 'prejudiced view'. This and Gandhi's convictions about industry's role in national life made a deep impression on Singh.

That March Singh's wife died in a smallpox epidemic, leaving him with five small children. Gandhi took food cooked by his mother to Singh's children. 'I felt he was a member of our family,' says Singh. 'His care seemed to be completely selfless--he was not trying to get something in return. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship.'

The following January, Gandhi invited the two men and their colleagues to a conference at Asia Plateau, the MRA centre in western India. 'At first,' recalled V N Prasad, 'I could not understand when they talked about the "inner" voice.' But after several days he felt he needed to apologize to C P Singh for his hatred of him. Singh had been feeling the same, and the two men had a heart-to-heart talk.

On his return, Singh's men were taken by surprise when he opposed a strike call and supported Prasad instead. They threatened to kill him. But he stood his ground, and over the next six months the two opposing groups were reconciled. That year, the annual production target in the melting shop was met in 10 months, allowing two months for maintenance work. The company started sending further groups of senior managers, union leaders and workers to MRA industrial conferences. To date, 470 have attended.

For Kiran Gandhi there was still the question of how to sustain and multiply personal changes of attitude within the company. When a vacancy fell open for a training officer in the Management Training Centre, Gandhi took it, encouraged by Telco's then head of management development, Nazimuddin Ahmed, who had also been to Asia Plateau.

The two men began thinking about the need for 'self-motivation', recalled Ahmed. 'Really motivated people are inner directed. They have a characteristic of their own and are not dependent on others. We decided to use the methodology we had picked up from MRA--the whole issue of inner change. We asked workers and union officers who had been to Asia Plateau to conduct a programme for a cross-section of people: divisional heads, supervisors, workers and opinion leaders. Kiran coined the phrase "human relations at work" (HRW). It came just at the right moment when people realized we had to change our ways.'

The three-day HRW training courses, launched in 1982, empowered the workforce to take initiatives and led to the birth of shop floor quality circles, known in the company as 'small group activity' (SGA). Groups of workers meet for an hour each week to iron out production problems, as well as to discuss such issues as how to tackle alcoholism, family debt and communal tension in their townships or 'colonies'. By the early 1990s, 1,300 such voluntary groups, each comprising eight to 12 people, involved almost the entire workforce of 20,000 employees. Sarosh Ghandy said that the SGAs had contributed substantially to productivity gains, saving Telco Rs80 million (£1,900,000) a year.

Another key player in the birth of HRW was P N Pandey, one of four senior executives to visit Asia Plateau in 1978. He had taken a Rs10,000 loan from the company on the pretext of buying a car--but had no intention of getting one, though he produced false documents to show the company that he had. Laying his career on the line, he felt he needed to be honest with the accounts department. Much to his relief he was not reprimanded, though he still had to repay the loan in 24 instalments.

Pandey, who had a reputation for being a tough and temperamental manager, also apologized to a supervisor, Jaswant Singh, whom he had insulted. They had not been on speaking terms for 12 years. Singh was 'completely overwhelmed', according to Pande. 'He grabbed me in a hug and tears poured down his face.' A senior manager who witnessed the scene commented that Pande had completely changed.

'This whole experience was formative in drawing up the content of the HRW programme,' Pandey continued. 'It was a live example of what human relations means.'

Shop floor workers who have been through HRW are encouraged to be on its training faculty. At one afternoon session, a chargehand from the toolroom, R B Singh, conducted a programme for 20 production workers. On the agenda were alcoholism, absenteeism, punctuality, syncronizing work functions, responsibility versus blame, and even blood donation schemes. Other HRW inputs included a session on conflict resolution, a discussion on the life and values of Jamshetji Tata, and an industrial film from Brazil made by MRA.

Sarosh Ghandy said: 'The main reason why we launched into our training using the approach of MRA in such a big way was to try and improve our managers and workers as people. We have also had two or three dozen swamis (Hindu priests) giving talks on various aspects of human behaviour.' Pandey added, 'HRW has led to a total attitudinal change among the employees at all levels.' In the four years that he was Telco's head of industrial relations, disciplinary actions against employees fell from 260 a year to 60. Man-hours lost in stoppages declined from 10,000 to none, and absenteeism, once chronic, was virtually eliminated.

Other industries have taken a keen interest in Telco's experience. Chandreshwar Khan, Assistant Manager at the Management Training Centre, has given talks on HRW to conferences of the Confederation of Indian Industry. 'Improvements in the quality of our products will come from an improvement in the quality of life of our workforce,' he says. 'Industrial relations too often suggests "we and they". In our company we talk of human relations, meaning we work together. And we don't just talk about it--it has become a way of life.'

First published in For A Change magazine, May/June 1993.

See also 'When quality is a way of life' by Mike Smith, Financial Times, 25 August 1993.

1. For a full account of the Tata story, read 'The creation of Wealth' by R M Lala, India Book House, Bombay, 1992.

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