National quality revolutions tend to follow the same patterns, even if played out years apart. The only major difference is the speed at which developments unfold. This difference offers marvelous opportunities for learning. Countries can compare their efforts with nations ahead of them and see what they might expect. Or, they might look at countries that are behind them to identify what could have been done differently. With these perspectives, countries can understand their own history more fully, to capitalize on advantages and avoid pitfalls.
We were invited to India in June to give one-day public seminars on quality in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. While there, we took time to play the tourist role--visiting the Taj Mahal and Jaipur, and looking around both Delhi and Chennai. Talking with Indian businesspeople and briefly sampling Indian culture underscored for us the similarities between quality challenges faced in both India and the United States. In both countries, informed consumers are driving the quality revolution, but in India, the idea of an informed consumer is relatively new.
Until 1991, only one part-time, government-run television channel was available in India. Since then, the spectrum of television channels has grown steadily as CNN, MTV and other foreign networks join numerous Indian channels. The attendant explosion of information--both explicitly from commercials and implicitly from products and services shown as inherent parts of various shows--has spotlighted a simple fact with enormous impact: Consumers know they have choices.
During the last three to four years, the Indian government has deregulated many aspects of commercial business, lifting restrictions that protected Indian businesses but greatly limited consumer choice. As a result, Indian citizens are receiving the combined impact of earlier quality revolutions in Japan, the United States and Europe as well as the intensifying efforts of Indian companies.
Our admittedly quick look at the Indian business culture revealed the following:
* The quality vocabulary has become part of everyday business. Sixty-five companies in the New Delhi phone book have "quality" as their first name. The word seems to appear on every fourth billboard, and claims of ISO 9000 certification abound. In addition, customer satisfaction survey forms are ubiquitous. Conversations with Indian businesspeople, however, indicate that quality hasn't advanced too far in most companies.
* A palpable feeling of energy and determination pervades the country. In the same way they've succeeded in maintaining a democracy despite enormous challenges, Indians are equally determined to succeed in businesses of all sizes. Their democracy offers them an enormous advantage because it has familiarized them with one excellent quality principle: Every individual has value and can contribute.
* Competition will force the Indian business community to assimilate quality far more quickly than other nations have in the past. It took Japan a couple of decades for its manufactured items, led by its automobiles and electronic items, to take the world market by storm. The United States had less time before it effectively joined forces with Japan and began seeking European markets, which in turn used ISO 9000 to buy time while they hurried to catch up. Survivors of the quality-based competitions in Japan, the United States and Europe now challenge Indian companies on their home ground. Time is short.
* Fortunately, many Indian companies recognize both the challenge's seriousness and the rich opportunity for growth. Attendees at our seminars came from many different organizations--manufacturing, service, health care and even start-up companies. At the start of the U.S. quality revolution, the audience for a quality seminar would have come almost exclusively from manufacturing.
* ISO 9000 certification, while common in India, already has been put in perspective. Conversations with businesspeople, including business journalists, reveal a waning respect for ISO 9000, based on its inherent limitations and on registrars' inconsistencies. An effort to establish an Indian Baldrige-based national quality award has begun.
In India, as in every country where an educated consumer base has served as the catalyst for a quality movement, there is no turning back. Three major forces compete naturally for control of a nation's business: owners, workers and consumers. More than 90 percent of India's economy has been controlled by only 50 families, and labor unions have had limited say. Many of those businesses can't compete in an international economy. Indian consumers are entering into the equation now, and they will decide who survives and who perishes.
Our visit to India stimulated us both intellectually and emotionally. The Taj Mahal really is perfect and takes your breath away. Traffic in India also takes your breath away. Taxi drivers from Boston or Cairo would die of fright on Indian roads. But mostly, our overall impression was of a country that is going to make it. It will meet this invasion of quality-based competitors and will win some skirmishes and lose some. However, when all the dust settles, it will join the international quality movement as a full partner.
About the authors
Pat Townsend and Joan Gebhardt have written more than 200 articles and four books: Commit to Quality (John Wiley & Sons, 1986); Quality in Action: 93 Lessons in Leadership, Participation, and Measurement (John Wiley & Sons, 1992); Five-Star Leadership: The Art and Strategy of Creating Leaders at Every Level (John Wiley & Sons, 1997); and Recognition, Gratitude & Celebration (Crisp Publications, 1997).
E-mail them at email@example.com.