Process is like weeds in a garden. It has to be ruthlessly culled periodically.

In 1976 I joined Macmillan's as the Economics Editor. I was only 25 years old. It was my first proper job.

Six months later the Managing Editor summoned me. He said I was not “pulling my weight”. My target, he said, was 25 books a year. I was doing only 10. If I didn't shape up, I would have to leave.

“I have been here only six months,” I said. The boss said, “I am looking at next year's list and you have only 10 there. Where are the remaining 15 to come from?”

I told him I would do what was needed and went back to my room. For the next 10 weeks, I sent up each and every manuscript for approval for publication. I was not doing my job, actually, which required me to sift through the sludge and send up only the passable ones.

Many books that would otherwise have been rejected by me at the threshold stage were accepted and some rather good ones were rejected. One of those was by a person who went on to become a very prominent economist.

The good books, along with hers, got rejected because rule was that if the marketing department said it could not sell 1,000 copies in three years, the book would not be published. This procedure had been followed for decades.

There seemed no apparent reason for choosing 1,000 over some other number. But there it was.

Always challenge

With my job on the line, not to mention the callowness of youth behind me, I decided to challenge this. “How many will you sell?” I asked the marketing manager, as cautious a manager as ever lived.

“500”, he said. “Ok, then let's print 500 and you sell those,” I said.

“But the price will double,” he replied “and we may sell only 350.”

“That will increase the wholesalers' commission,” I said. “Besides, we break even at 200, so what's your problem?”

He argued for a while but knew I had caught him out because that is precisely what he was doing to boost revenues with imported titles. Selling 10 foreign books at $50 was easier than selling 500 Indian ones at 75.

I tell this story because the organisation had become so caught up in process that it had lost sight of the key objective, which was to develop Indian academic publishing as a major source of revenue and profit. The margins on Indian books, by the way, were three times that on the imported ones.

When I was narrating this story to a colleague, she came up with one of her own. She had worked in a financial services firm. She said her boss was such a stickler for process that he insisted on e-mails being in accordance with norms set by him.

He not only wanted the English to be plu-perfect and the addresses had to be written in declining order of seniority by designation, he also ruled that e-mails must not be sent by juniors to seniors except as a response by the seniors to the juniors! He would berate those who did not follow this procedure.

Result: soon people stopped communicating.

Process 10, common sense 0

In JNU, where my wife teaches, they allowed academic staff to buy books — but only from a specified shop and only after the book had been approved by two others in admin! “We want the money to be spent only on what is relevance to the faculty,” they said, suggesting not only that the faculty was irresponsible but also that they knew better what the faculty needed.

Result: the funds lapsed and that was given as the reason for withdrawing the ‘scheme' (as they like to call these things in Government). Staff did not “evince much interest”.

That the Government should be bereft of common sense is self-evident — after all, it is not their own money they spend. But I am certain there are hundreds of companies where process has overpowered common sense.

T.C.A. Srinivasa-Raghavan is Senior Associate Editor, Business Line

(This article was published on May 11, 2012)
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