The Maganbhai Moment
Posted by Rahul Mehta on Oct 4, 2015
"Maganbhai, please meet Nipunbhai," is all I had said to introduce the two people at my office. And before I could finish the sentence, Nipunbhai rushed to touch Maganbhai’s feet. Not used to such attention, Maganbhai immediately stopped him half way. And the bear hug followed :-) I wondered that these two barely knew each other, they lived half a planet away from each other and yet they met like lost brothers. It was no surprise to me. What connected them, amidst the laughter and hugs, was a story. The story of – let’s simply call it - the Maganbhai Moment.
Till early 2000s, the operations of our family-run diamond business were spread across multiple locations in Surat. Around 2005, we consolidated the various facilities into a single location, KG House. This was to serve multiple objectives : co-location would help optimize operations, co-habitation would result in building team-spirit and so on.
One core feature of KG House was to be its centralized canteen. Earlier, at lunch time, employees i.e. cutters and polishers or rough diamonds, would typically step out of the factories to take their meals. Not to say much about the nutritional value of Gujarati street fare, this lunch break would stretch to 'lunch hour(s)'! Consequently, a working day for our employees extended to over 12 hours. With the central canteen at KG House, we were attempting to offer nutritional yet tasty food at a nominal cost to help employees get back to work in 30 minutes. And as a result, go home sooner at 6.30 pm instead of 8 pm. I knew it was a cultural change to get them to lunch in 30 minutes. And for this, getting the canteen thing right was a significant cog in the wheel. Having said that, somewhere within, I was assured the central canteen would do well. Not just because of my conviction that we meant well for our employees, but equally because of our implicit faith in the person who was helming this effort for us. We had asked Maganbhai Ahir, who had risen from the ranks to be the Head of Production of our entire operations, to ensure a seamless transition to KG House.
With a lot of planning to boot, the transition took place like precise clockwork. Week by week, team after another moved from their old offices to KG House, all in a span of 3 months. The canteen was a crucial part of this transition. It had to be. As we all know, how routine yet how important food is to us. Being a foodie myself, and a firm believer in 'we are what we eat and we become what we eat', we had put together the menus, designed the seating systems around the dining hall, the kitchen and storage areas, down to the queueing of the employees. To ensure quality and equity, the management and the owners ate with the employees in the same dining room. As KG House buzzed with 2500 employees, the company got back to work at its new address. Maganbhai was relieved to have pulled this off uneventfully...
...until something happened one day. As I queued up to put away my soiled dish after lunch, I saw huge steel cylinders filled with food waste. Employees would clear their plates of the waste and give away their dishes at the counter before proceeding to their work-desks. What surprised me was the quantity of food being wasted. I knew our food did not taste bad - I ate it everyday. Day after day, I kept seeing the wasted food. I called Maganbhai asking him the reason for this.
'What happens to this food?,' I asked.
'We trash it,' said Maganbhai. I could imagine that. No one - however hungry - would eat this sludge.
'How much do we waste each day?,' I asked
The answer that came after a couple days baffled me. We wasted almost 20-25% of what was prepared. On one hand, the poor in the city faced malnutrition and on the other, we wasted an equivalent of 600 meals! In the land of ‘anna devo bhava’, this now bore a moral dimension. 'We got to do something about this,' I told Maganbhai.
In a few days, as I queued up at the soiled dish counter, I could see that Maganbhai's mind was at work. Posters exhorting 'No wastage' theme were put up in the dining hall and people were paying heed to Maganbhai's call. The food wastage fell drastically. Moral persuasion was working. Maganbhai's sincerity brought a smile to my face.
But it seemed I had celebrated a bit too soon.
In a few days, the waste food cylinders were back with a bang. And so were we, racking our brains as to what to do next. Maganbhai suggested that directing the message through the floor managers (to whom the employees reported directly) would be more effective. So, Maganbhai met with the floor managers and personally went to each division along with the floor managers to convey the message of 'No wastage.' Floor managers would do the rounds while their teams ate. The employees responded to the request (and veiled threat) of their direct managers and the food waste came down again.
However, the forces of old habits were enjoying this duel with us. In a week or so, the wastage was up again. This time, the floor managers expressed their helplessness to us. Unlike us, they were convinced that polishing diamonds and eating without wastage were mutually exclusive. According to them, you could not do both! They politely requested Maganbhai to back off on this matter, lest it resulted in their spoilt relations with their reporting staff.
One more trick was off the table.
But Maganbhai was not the one to give up. By now, he had a committed group of 10-12 employees who believed that wastage should be minimized if not stopped. While brainstorming with them, a few suggested that with value-conscious thrifty workers, nothing else would work like a penalty. So, a fine of Rs 100/- per head was fixed for wasting food.
Surely, this was a master stroke. For several days, I left the soiled dish counter a happy man, I knew Maganbhai had done it! It was possible.
On one such day, en route to my office from the dining hall, I saw a queue of employees outside Maganbhai's office, with each carrying their own soiled plates. Perplexed, I called Maganbhai to my office. 'What's the scene outside your office, Maganbhai?', I asked.
'I am no longer Head of Production, Paragbhai. I am now a Judge - I pronounce justice on disputes on what is to be classified as wasted food. Every noon, employees who have been asked to pay up, queue up to my office to defend their case. Some refuse to pay if they were served a half-cooked roti (which they wasted) or a quarter-cut-lemon piece (which they didn't want to use and hence wasted) and such. I pronounce judgment on who will pay the penalty and who will be spared. If I order a penalty, I feel the employee's anger towards me. If I let him off, its not sending the right signal to the soiled dish supervisor who has penalized him in the first place.'
Both Maganbhai and I knew the answer. We were not up to the powers of our wily adversary - the old habits. It was clear we had to retreat. I wrote off this issue from my mind as Maganbhai left my office.
A business trip kept me away for couple weeks after this incident. On my return, a surprise awaited me. I found the waste cylinders missing. A few days of finding practically no waste, I asked the kitchen supervisor what was cooking… :-) He simply stated, ‘No one wastes food now.’ His response and the ring of finality of it caught me by surprise - I had certainly missed something – this was a different place when I left.
On reaching my desk, I called up Maganbhai and asked him what had happened. He cryptically said, ‘Problem is solved, Paragbhai. You tell me how was your trip.’ I could sense him smile across the shop floor. Maganbhai was not going to let it out too soon, I thought. So I called him over to my office.
After some cajoling, Maganbhai relented and told me what happened. A few days after beating retreat from the penalty tactic, Maganbhai was brainstorming with his group. Nothing seemed to be obvious. Almost in a flash, Maganbhai knew what had to be done. He asked his group of 10-12 people, ‘Are you all committed to reduce food waste? If so, are you prepared to follow me in what I do?’ When the response was in affirmative, Maganbhai just said, ‘Then we meet at the dining hall tomorrow noon.’
Next day, near the soiled dish counters, a table was set with empty plates. Maganbhai’s group joined him on this table. As the first batch of employees finished their meals and queued up to put away their food waste, Maganbhai told them, ‘Please do not waste your food. Serve it to us instead. I am going to eat on this table today onwards.’ In disbelief, the employees served him their left-overs, and Maganbhai accepted and ate it without any hesitation. His colleagues joined him. As he finished his meal, Maganbhai simply said, ‘At least 12 dishes less of waste today,’ and saying so, took off for his desk.
For a culture where eating others’ left-overs was the preserve of the most downtrodden caste, this act moved all those who witnessed it. Next few days, as Maganbhai and his group sat on their table, waiting for employees to offer them their left-overs, fewer and fewer people left food in their plates. The word spread among the employees. ‘Don’t leave food in your dish, else Maganbhai will eat it!’
In just a few days, the tables had turned. It was as if the entire workforce took it upon themselves to ensure that Maganbhai and his group ate fresh food, and not left-overs. This time around, the means used to reduce food waste were no longer ‘management tactics.’ It was not ‘employees versus management’ brute force. It was not a monetary penalty or a veiled threat. It was a family member choosing to do what we would never do to our own. It was a heart thing now. The difference was palpable. And so, in a few days indeed, Maganbhai and his group were eating fresh food.
As Maganbhai related this to me, I teared up. How mistaken was I, thinking I own and run this business. This establishment – and this entire world really – runs on the selfless giving of these extraordinarily ordinary Maganbhais.
In his earthy manner, almost embarrassed talking about himself, Maganbhai said, ‘Paragbhai, the food wastage stopped. Our problem is solved.’
Maganbhai was being his humble self. It was obvious to me that something like this wasn’t borne in the paradigm where problem, its creator and its solver are distinct from each other. This was something else – this actually started where these boundaries diffuse. Something like this was not the product of the mind – it could not have been strategized or crafted – it simply emerged when the ego stopped trying. When this supreme condition precedent was satisfied, human intelligence took over and the only solution presented itself. This was no wonder – only nature’s laws at work.
I was feeling fortunate to have witnessed something like this first hand – a Gandhian moment when inter-connectedness prevailed over cultural and mental barriers … when universal human intelligence overcame hierarchy … this ubuntu moment when the shift occurred from ‘me’ to ‘One’…
Days and weeks later, as I repeatedly revisited my meeting with Maganbhai, I was in a dilemma what name to give to something like this. Well, let’s simply call it the Maganbhai Moment :)
- As narrated by Parag Shah (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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