In the Jugaad-land

I am in India. I have forced myself into a 'discovery' trip - sitting across the table with potential customers and partners to understand if our ideas have any validity. This has been enormously valuable, as it should be. I have now lived through the rituals of being challenged, rejected, questioned and occasionally supported - the usual rite of passage of product creation! I am exhausted but full of ideas, and I think I know what to do next.

As it was necessary, I came with an open mind. Like a start-up, I came not to 'sell' but to 'learn' [I have always taken Steve Blank's point seriously: Start-ups are learning organisations] I was not pitching, I was connecting. Coming to India after a gap of two years, I wanted to know everything that is happening, that is important. Even when people were telling me that there was no market for my idea, I was eager to know what other ideas were there. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone to step into the other person's shoes to know what might be useful.

But despite all my humility, I came to resist one idea: Jugaad! I have some history here. When a few Cambridge academics started celebrating this idea, as the definitive 'Indian' management philosophy, I wrote a post (The limits of Jugaad) about its corrosive effects. In fact, I always felt that the idea was patronising (that poor Indians are trying to get by doing whatever they can, and that's okay!) and insulting to those Indian business people who go out every day to create something of value. I would remember my grandfather, an octogenarian sitting in supplier factories trying to ensure zero defects: He was certainly not into Jugaad. This was, to me, a made-up idea invented for the sake of research novelty, celebrating bad practices.

As I write my field notes now, I see that we are counting the costs now. The corrosive practice of Jugaad, fed by the rocket fuel of speculative business culture, is effectively pushing the Indian businesses backward. The 'copy-and-catchup' route of capacity building, that Indian businesses would mature (just like the Japanese, the Korean and now the Chinese before them) to compete with the best in the world, is being effectively nullified with this love affair with Jugaad. This has become the excuse of shoddy work, lazy oversight, shortcuts and callous approach - all the enemies of trying to do a good job!

It was particularly fascinating for me when a colleague explored the equivalence of this to my MVP (minimum viable product) approach. 'We are doing the same thing - trying to create the demand first before we are fully ready!', he said. This is, of course, way off the mark: For us, the goal is not mediocrity and it is never about compromises. These are precise reasons why the Jugaad mindset is so harmful: We all try to get by with fewer resources than ideal, but when we think compromise is the goal and you can always fool your way to success, the whole business is doomed. 

I should not commit the errors of generalisation, though. India is home to some of the world's most aspirational companies and not everyone is hiding in the comfort cove of jugaad. My point is that it is coming in the way. The trouble with India's business culture (see, India's business culture in the brave new world) is that bosses don't do the work: Often, they don't even know what the people on shop-floors actually do. The pride associated with doing work by hand ('shopcraft as soulcraft', in Matthew Crawford's remarkable presentation) has been cleared out of our culture by colonialism, which started by destroying the artisanal industries. Gandhi's efforts to bring back those values by insisting on a Charkha was too esoteric too late: We never really learnt to work again. Within this environment, jugaad is wrecking havoc. As I look out to the road outside my window, everyone seems to be in a hurry but everyone would eventually arrive late! Shortcuts can't build a business, sadly.


Anirudh Phadke said…
A very valid point, Supriyo! My engineering drawing lecturer used to be really upset if one stroke of the 2B pencil went astray under the microscopic view. That was the quality and precision expected of us. Quality can't be compromised, just as your father practised.

However, Jugaad doesn't always mean shortcuts. It may mean budget cuts to justify the humble means that our country lives in. To use an HB pencil to give the same result as the 2B (though really hard to do) could be the necessity for some. I agree that many people resort to Jugaad to cut quality on the pretext of having meagre means and that makes for the very pervasive "chalta hai" attitude. That hurts us and our products in the long term. You are probably seeing it everywhere around you - right from poor craftsmanship in houses or bathrooms and right up to the way many luxury car owners drive on the wrong side to cut a few metres!

Thankfully, there's a silver lining in many new world class products taking shape. I hope, together, we build it with a fully un-Jugaad way! Have a pleasant stay in India...

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