There is something strange taking place in Bidadi, near Bangalore. Well-dressed young men in some kind of corporate uniform seem to be walking in single file in a marked side-lane that wends its way around a well-groomed, green campus. When they cross the road, they only do so—again in single file—at a zebra crossing. If you do stumble upon them during the day, they bow and say Konnichiwa (Kon-ee-chee-wa or ‘hello’ in Japanese.
What on earth could be going on here? Is this a bizarre scientific experiment conducted by the Japanese who have embedded smart chips into the cerebral cortex of young men in Karnataka in the hopes of producing the ultimate citizen and worker, something that Philip K Dick would have been proud of?
Well, not quite. But close. This is the Toyota Technical Training Institute, the auto company’s CSR initiative where 65 talented young men from very poor families in rural Karnataka (the institute houses 190) are picked every year for a three-year, fully-funded, residential programme for developing manufacturing-related skills. The initiative is noteworthy for two reasons. One, in an era where CSR initiatives can be largely empty posturing this is the real deal and should be a benchmark for the category. Moreover, for an industry that experienced a surge of labour problems in the last few years—with the Maruti Suzuki strike alone costing the company more than Rs 1,000 crore—this may just be a blueprint for how companies can produce loyal, well-trained and (dare we say it?) happy work force.
The students develop awareness on water and power use while practicing Kaizen (improving business operations continuously, always driving for innovation and evolution) in being innovative. “Safety, quality, cost and productivity are the four words that are key in an automobile factory,” added T Somanath Principal, Toyota Technical Training Institute, and so the students get a rigorous training to meet all these. The Toyota technique of manufacturing is imbibed by the students, and concepts that they familiarise themselves with include ‘Lean Manufacturing’, or Kaizen and Genchi Genbutsu (go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions).
The TTTI offers its students four courses—automobile assembly, automobile paint, automobile weld and mechatronics (a combination of mechanical and industrial electronics). The course involves practical training at the TKM plant where the students are exposed to the application of the Toyota Production System. The students are exposed to various aspects of Monozukuri or skilled manufacturing in the Toyota way. Students here get to work on the latest of engines and engine technologies that Toyota has to offer. If Satish, from the first year, had entered some other ITI, he would have probably got to work on some old, vintage engine with an outdated technology.
In addition to learning all the usual auto related stuff, students at TTTI spend their day also on yoga, gardening and learning Japanese and English apart from the technical subjects. The students, kept busy from 6 am to 10 pm, end up with a well-rounded personality at the end of the three years at the institute, said Somanath. Many of them could become part of the company that has around 5,000 employees today after being trained on the newest of new engine technologies.
“It’s the attitude that’s focused on at the institute,” said Somanath. Sumimasen (‘excuse me’) and Gomanasai (‘sorry’) may become part of their everyday vocabulary, eventually, for these boys undergoing training at the institute. Training in cleanliness and neatness are the hallmark. Even the way one walks through the corridors (stopping at corners at a designated spot and checking to see if anyone else is coming, before walking) may seem a little far-fetched. But, this is necessary when one is moving around on the shop-floor, points out Somanath.
The institute selects the boys after a rigorous test and interview and background check.
“Companies have to spend resources to upgrade skills in the new recruits as they have not had the right kind of industry exposure,” said Sangeeta Lala, VP, TeamLease Services. The greatest shortcoming, says Lala, is the lack of soft skills among those who pass out of ITIs. Many of them are strong in their technical skills, but the soft skills do them in, she adds.
N Krishnan, Head of Research-India, CLSA, and Bhavesh Shah, a research associate, in a study report on Indian Labour, say that it’s an example all corporates should follow. From the point of view of scale, though, they say TTTI’s model may not be efficient, although, “a business model can be built around this method of training,” said Shah. “Such an effort will help produce well-polished personnel. It will help increase productivity in the long run. Put it together with the best practices in auto companies, it will do the industry a lot of good,” said Rajeev Gowda, Professor of Economics and Social Sciences at IIM-Bangalore.
That’s a case for staffing firms like Teamlease or training firm like Centum to tap into, added Shah. They could approach Hero Motocorp, Bajaj or a few others, offering to produce highly-trained people for them. But, the biggest hurdle is that the auto industry is a low-margin sector unlike the IT industry that’s got a higher margin.
Ultimately, it does seem odd for Indians to be emulating the sometimes rigid, hierarchical and ferociously disciplined Japanese—a cultural import that may not sit very well with Indian workers. Indeed, rumours say that these were some of the reasons that contributed to the worsening relationship between management and labour at Maruti Suzuki. So far, though, an initiative like this built from scratch with real investment going into the community is a very different proposition. Shekar Viswanathan, Deputy Managing Director (commercial), Toyota Kirloskar Motors, said of the institute that it produces high quality people who are well-trained in Japanese methods and attitudes. But, though they are trained in Japanese methods, they are in high demand in the industry. “One they get promoted, very often they are approached by other auto majors in the country,” he added.
That’s probably the best thing that anyone can say about an initiative such as this.