Managing an Extreme Makeover
During a tour of a Toyota Corolla assembly plant located near their headquarters in Bangalore, India, executives of Wipro Ltd. hit on a revolutionary idea—why not apply Toyota’s successful manufacturing techniques to managing their software development and clients’ back-office operations business?
“Toyota preaches continuous improvement, respect for employees, learning, and embracing change,” says T. K. Kurien, 45, former head of Wipro’s 13,600-person business-process outsourcing unit. “What we do is apply people, technology, and processes to solve a business problem.”
Among the problems spotted early on by Kurien? Cubicles. They’re normal for programmers but interrupt the flow for business-process employees. Deciding to position people side by side at long tables assembly-line style “was a roaring disaster,” admits Kurien. “The factory idea concerned people.” So based on feedback from his middle managers, Kurien arranged classes to explain his concepts and how they would ultimately make life easier for employees.
Wipro also adopted Toyota’s kaizen system of soliciting employee suggestions. Priya, who has worked for Wipro for years, submitted several kaizen and was delighted when her bosses responded promptly to her suggestions. “Even though it’s something small, it feels good. You’re being considered,” she says. Empowerment in the workplace washed over into her private life. As the first woman in her family to attend college, she told her parents they may arrange her marriage only to a man who will not interfere with her career.
Kurien and his managers work hard at boosting employee morale, offering rewards—pens, caps, or shirts—to employees who submit suggestions to kaizen boxes. And each week, a top-performing employee receives a cake. Murthy, an accountant who hopes to be Wipro’s chief financial officer someday, spearheaded an effort to cut government import approval times from 30 to 15 days. He got a cake with his name written on it in honey. “I was surprised management knew what I was doing,” he says. “Now I want to do more projects.”
With multibillions in revenues, thousands of employees, and a U.S.-traded stock that advanced 230 percent in a two-year period, Wipro is a star of India’s burgeoning information technology industry. The company’s paperwork processing operations bear a clear resemblance to a Toyota plant. Two shifts of young people line long rows of tables. At the start of each shift, team leaders discuss the day’s goals and divide up tasks. And just like in a Toyota factory, electronic displays mounted on the walls shift from green to red if things get bogged down.
This obsession with management efficiency has helped India become the back-office operation for hundreds of Western companies, resulting in the transfer of many thousands of jobs offshore. “If the Indians get this right, in addition to their low labor rates, they can become deadly competition,” says Jeffrey K. Liker, a business professor at the University of Michigan and author of The Toyota Way, a book about Toyota’s lean manufacturing techniques. If Kurien’s management initiatives succeed, experts may soon be extolling the Wipro way.
- What type of manager is T. K. Kurien? How would you characterize his leadership style?
- What managerial role does T. K. Kurien assume in his approach to attaining his division’s goal of improved customer service?
- What management skill sets does he exhibit?
Sources: Steve Hamm, “Taking a Page from Toyota’s Playbook,” Bloomberg Businessweek, https://www.bloomberg.com, accessed November 17, 2017; Shilpa Phadnis, “T K Kurien to Leave Wipro This Month,” The Times of India, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com, January 23, 2017; Toyota Resumes Efficiency Drive,” BBC News, http://www.bbc.com, March 26, 2015.