Stimulating Beneficial Change – Leadership Lessons from Indore

Stimulating Beneficial Change – Leadership Lessons from Indore

Every organization – big, small, for-profit or otherwise – is created to pursue goals, which when achieved, improve the well-being or happiness of the customers/people they are meant to serve. If an organization loses sight of this basic, and essential principle, it might continue to exist for a while, but is unlikely to make a surplus, or retain the loyalty of its customers; thereby, paving the way for its inevitable demise.

I always like to remind those who are privileged to serve from within the organized sector, that serving one’s customers effectively and with a consistent focus on robust standards of excellence, is never an accident. Improvements and beneficial change can never occur on their own, without well-planned, coordinated and focused effort. Worthwhile objectives and standards are reached only as a result of systematically planning for them, and following through with flawless execution by all those people who are a part of the overall team.

The process of stimulating beneficial change, making continuous improvements and adopting breakthrough innovations that deliver value, is always the result of painstaking planning and timely execution. It also calls for clear intention, a well-articulated vision, trustworthy and supportive leadership, impeccable teamwork, good planning, communications that are “buzzing” across the organization and an enjoyable, light-heartedness in the ambience that brings the best out of the people involved.

So what lessons can a city, founded in the 18th century provide? Frankly, from their recent-most achievement, there’s much to learn.

But before getting to that, here’s a little context and background.

Indore is an Indian city with a population of about 3.8 million people in the state of Madhya Pradesh. In 2014, when the Federal Government in India instituted a survey across 400 odd cities in the country to gauge their “cleanliness levels”, Indore ranked 149th in the overall list – an unimpressive, poor score. The cleanliness survey was repeated in 2016. This time Indore had improved its rankings to 25th from the top. In 2017, when the scores for the latest survey were released, Indore had improved further, and had reached the top-slot at #1! Truly this is an impressive journey of improvement, especially since it all happened in a span of less than three years!

As I delved deeper into the success of Indore’s cleanliness initiatives, I noticed that there are a number of lessons that we can all learn from what the teams in Indore (and in Madhya Pradesh) have done so well. In fact, thanks to their well-planned and effectively executed actions, eleven (11) of the top 50 cities in the rankings are from the state: and the 2nd city in the list is Bhopal – also a large city with about 2.2 million people.

Insights from the state’s efforts need to be reinforced. Here is my take on the top ten leadership lessons.

#1: Securing Upper Management Commitment

Madhya Pradesh is led by a Chief Minister (CM) – the equivalent of a Chief Executive in the setting of a corporation. The CM of the state was completely committed to the idea that the entire state had to undergo a radical transformation in the way it managed its “cleanliness parameters”. The CM in turn, was inspired by the Prime Minister of India – who in his regular meetings with Chief Ministers of India’s diverse states, had categorically mentioned that cleanliness and the prevention of open defecation had to be ended by 2019.

The tone at the top determines how everyone perceives the vision, and then the goals that emerge from the vision. It also affects how emphatically these ‘values’ are articulated, for everyone to align with. If Upper Management is ambivalent about what they really want to achieve, and their real intentions are not what they say they are, getting everyone involved becomes a challenge. When the top team is unwavering in committing to, and then communicating what they want, decisions, and the essential coordinated actions, begin to get done with alacrity.

#2: Relying on Data to Set Priorities

The state government used data on the various cities in the state, as well as key statistics from the different wards to determine the priorities for action. Goals were set and targets established based on the results that needed to be pursued, and the customers who had to be reached (those who were under-served). This is always a smart thing to do. Resources are optimally deployed, in areas where the results will provide the biggest gains.

#3: Carving out Manageable Areas of Focus and Responsibility

Providing focus on improvement efforts is a must. In Madhya Pradesh, cities across the state were divided into manageable clusters that needed similar municipal interventions. Since the prevention of open defecation was an integral part of achieving a high cleanliness score, the clusters that needed attention were carefully identified and marked for focused action and policy interventions.

#4: Assigning Process Ownership

Key administrators in the state’s extensive bureaucracy were assigned responsibilities for ensuring that critical processes – that were essential for the goals to be met – were managed from “start to finish”. Processes that cut across diverse functions, were assigned to Commissioners and senior functionaries in the District and Municipal administrations, to ensure that nothing would slip between the cracks. Having “process owners” assigned the responsibility for specific areas and targets, helped to ensure that there was clear accountability for results.

#5: Deploying New Policies and Standards

Old policies and rules were revamped to ensure that when deployed, all aspects of the state’s resources were properly aligned with the goals. For instance, it was made mandatory for all townships within cities to have centralized waste-management processes (which included segregation) and waste treatment plants. Municipal workers were empowered to impose and collect (often hefty) fines on those caught littering anywhere. Municipal employees were themselves asked to follow a more task-oriented working schedule, that was essential for the achievement of the stated goals.

#6: Enlisting the Support of All Stakeholders, including Children

The goal of making Madhya Pradesh a front-runner in overall cleanliness was communicated to all stakeholders (Resident Welfare Associations, Citizens’ groups, NGOs, Business Associations, Schools, Colleges, Students, Children, etc.) in a manner that enlisted their willful support. Almost INR 20 million were spent on awareness building across the state and engaging the enlisted agencies. Children volunteers were so excited about achieving the goal of cleanliness, that they would go out in groups armed with tin-drums and empty cans (like “monkey battalions”, vaanar sena) to create a loud din to shame those who were littering on the road, or still not using the newly constructed toilets to ease nature. Women volunteers, places across cities, were given whistles to alert anyone found littering.

#7: Providing Resources, Tools and Training

The desire to reach a certain standard or a set of goals has to be backed with the needed tools and resources that would enable their swift and speedy achievement. The Indore Municipal Corporation too acquired equipment and tools to enable its workers to perform their duties effectively, relying on mechanization where needed. The processes of garbage collection (including the early morning timings for collections from localities ) were also standardized and training was provided where needed.

#8: Using Technology Creatively

A mobile App called “Indore 311” was specifically created to enable a citizens’ interface with the Municipal Corporation to enable the identification and removal of garbage. Dust-bins were placed in areas where chronic littering tended to occur. The citizens felt further involved and empowered when suggestions posted on the mobile-app yielded swift action and improvements.

#9: Monitoring at the Highest Levels

An old management saying suggests that ‘What gets measured and monitored gets done’. If the measuring and monitoring of how well the goals are being achieved is done at the highest levels, it spurs even swifter action. That’s what happened in Madhya Pradesh. The CM’s office monitored progress on the goal of ‘no-open defecation’ (and achieved 100% compliance in January 2017) as well as other intermediate goals. The monitoring was also done by the state’s Commissioners and their teams, making sure that the entire machinery of the state administration and the municipalities were fully behind the process of stimulating beneficial change.

#10: Making the Journey Fun

Works of greatness are achieved by people who are happy and who are enjoying what they’re doing. I have not personally had a chance to verify this but I surmise that most of the people involved in making Indore the cleanest city in India, would have done so with great joy and enthusiasm. Children and youngsters certainly had a lot of fun as the process was unfurled, and if we were to probe a little deeper, I’m sure that everyone – from those in the CM’s office and all within the state machinery and the municipalities too, must have enjoyed the journey as well, and would now be looking forward to their next big collective achievement.


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