This is a blog by the students at the S P Jain Center of Management, Dubai, Singapore. The site is designed to play a common ground for the students and alumni of SPJCM to blog about their lives at the campus, industry exposure, events, current happenings, and everything else. The views expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of S P Jain Center of Management. For more information on S P Jain Center of Management and the courses offered, visit the official SPJCM website

Thinking like a Manager

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Indian IT companies may have made the world wake up and notice India but within the company circles there is mass sarcasm that does the rounds. The IT firms have made the word ‘bench’ a byword for ridicule and frustration among the employees. To a victim, it might cast his employer in bad light for lack of projects and demoralize him, making him doubt his own abilities and credentials. Is there a better way of tackling this problem? Is it possible to ameliorate the way a ‘benched’ employee might look at himself and the company? My attempt through this article is to answer this question in the affirmative.

Mr. M Hariharan, our brilliant Cost Accounting professor, discussed a consulting assignment he once worked on. The company in question was a paint manufacturing company. The business model of the company was to produce paints of different colours in bulk and then sell it to wholesalers. The manufacturer wouldn’t sell the paint to anyone needing anything less than 250 kgs of any colour. Shifting production from one colour to another needed a large setup time for cleaning the vessels, removing stains, drying them etc. So he would actually incur some cost in shifting production from one colour to another. So he chose to produce large quantities of a colour in one go rather than shift frequently from one to another.

Think of the problems with this strategy.
• It was cost centric and not customer centric
• Except for wholesalers, not many needed that huge quantity of any single colour
• This stretched inventory turnover as the stocks piled up waiting for a big order
• He lost out on a large number of smaller orders
• Piled up inventory would slowly entail reduced production
• Inflexibility delayed delivery to customer if the colour was not already available

All his problems were solved when he - following our professor’s advice – became more customer centric. He now produced lesser quantities of paints in one go, regularly shifted to different colours and bore the setup cost.

Think of the advantages of this model.
• There was always some amount of any given colour available for sale
• Even if it wasn’t, flexibility ensured that customers’ requirements were met
• Customer was now charged a premium for faster delivery which helped cover setup cost
• The size of the order didn’t matter so he could address all customers’ needs thus increasing his market size
• Inventory turnover was reduced as he was ready to take even the smaller orders

Inventory, as we just saw, is a necessary evil. It gives a cushion of serving an unexpected customer readily and yet becomes a liability once it exceeds a threshold. Crudely put, inventory is to manufacturing what human capital is to IT. The Indian IT companies have always been following a costing model of keeping a safety stock on ‘bench’ and charging the customers for this through overhead costs. Just like the safety stock, the employees on ‘bench’ are very critical to any IT company to overcome any unforeseen exigency. Consider the attrition in the Indian IT companies and this problem would appear even more bothersome. The shadow resource or ‘benched’ employee is thus a conscious choice not only of the vendor but also of the client.

Not many people could’ve taught us Marketing better than Professor Ram kumar did. An IIM Ahmedabad alumnus, he stretched the limit of our thought processes. He made us play a short game while explaining a principle in marketing. He asked us (about 65 of us) to close our eyes and then count from one to twenty individually with only one person speaking at a time. No one was allowed to speak two consecutive numbers. We’d restart if any two students spoke at the same time. With everyone’s eyes closed, no one knew who would speak next; you always felt like speaking next but something would hold you and you would keep quiet and then somebody would speak out the next number after some time. The game was very interesting and after a few days practice we could reach a score of twenty, to our own surprise, amidst cheers of disbelief. So what was the takeaway from this game? Two. First learning has nothing to do with this article and yet is a valuable learning - human beings communicate at the subconscious level. When our goal became the same and grew stronger with every failure, our collective subconsciousness inhibited all but any one person from speaking until we reached our goal. Second learning was a statement that the professor repeated every time we bungled and had to restart the counting. He used to say, “Let us start again. Be patient. Remember that those who are not speaking are contributing equally to our cause.” This was the statement that hit me hard and gave me goose bumps all through this game. I never spoke for the entire game just to experience the thrill of contributing through silence.

So what has that got to do with employees on bench? This game conveys the idea that even without a tangible contribution to the company’s cause, such employees’ contribution is no less than those making a tangible contribution.

Dr. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” talks of finding a meaning in any state of life, even in the most sordid ones, to help one live a better life. In the book, he cites an incident where unemployed youth who feel dejected, demoralized and worthless due to their inability to land a job are asked to volunteer for social service until they get a job. After realizing the worth of their voluntary work, these youth realize the meaning of their existence and feel a growing sense of self-worthiness which leads to happiness at best and reduction of inferiority complex at worst.

This is precisely where IT companies have failed. They’ve have failed, not because they keep employees on bench, but because they’ve not effectively communicated the ‘benched’ employee’s worth to the victim himself. This becomes all the more important when, as shown by above examples, an employee’s output is directly related to his sense of self-worthiness, which in turn is associated to the meaning he associates to any state he is in, be it productive or buffer. Keeping the employees motivated is a titanic task for Human Resource Department of any company. They can ill-afford to ignore a threat to motivation which is as glaring as keeping them on 'bench'. This idea should hence be drilled in their minds during the new joinee's orientation to make their state of mind and self-esteem impervious to 'bench.'

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