The pursuit of excellence drives positive and transformative change, because it sets our sights very high, well beyond what we are achieving today, and expands the boundaries of what is possible.

JRD Tata, whose birth anniversary we celebrate this month, lived and practised this principle. As Chairman of the Tata Group for over five decades, he pushed for excellence in all quarters. This enabled him to make remarkable contributions to Indian industry.

JRD’s philosophy of excellence is summed up in a letter that he wrote in 1965 to an educationist in Kolkata, where he laid out the guiding principles of his life.

One of these principles was - “That one must forever strive for excellence, or even perfection, in any task however small, and never be satisfied with the second best.”

How small could such a task be, where excellence must be sought at all times? Some stories from the early days of Air India, which JRD Tata had originally founded as Tata Air Lines, provide us a glimpse. He was then the Chairman of this magnificent enterprise, India’s first international airline.

Whenever he flew Air India, he would observe everything around him, and write back to the Management with his comments. Once, after traveling on an Air India flight to Europe, he wrote a memo to the General Manager of the airline:

“The tea served on board from Geneva, is, without exaggeration, indistinguishable in colour from coffee. I do not know if the black colour of the tea is due to the quality used, or due to excessive brewing. I suggest that the Station Manager at Geneva be asked to look into the matter.”

He goes on to say:

“I found that some of the seats recline much more than the others…. I suggest that all our seats be adjusted for a maximum reclining angle, except, of course, the rearmost seats which are limited by bulkheads.”

He then goes on to deal with the matter of shabby armrests which need replacement. He was Chairman of the Company, but no subject was too small to be ignored, in his quest for perfection. JRD’s larger purpose in pointing out these small details was to inculcate a mindset of excellence across the organisation, in its quest to achieve global standards.

No wonder Air India was, in those days, preferred by international travellers for its superior customer experience. If Indian Institutions have to achieve world-class standards, this pursuit of excellence in every detail, big or small, continues to remain an imperative. The culture of “Chalta Hai”, which permeates many sectors of our country, has to change.

JRD Tata also realised that driving big, fundamental change at a broad social or national level requires breakthrough ideas from all quarters. Here, excellence is often determined by the sheer quality of ideas, and broad-based support for such new concepts. In such areas, he therefore developed a very inclusive approach. One example of this is the Bombay Plan, published in 1944.

This was perhaps the first comprehensive plan created for the development of India. It envisaged a fifteen-year plan, with a road-map for investments in key areas such as power, roads, railways and mining.

To develop the powerful ideas which went into preparing the Bombay Plan, some of India’s best known and most gifted industrialists joined JRD. This stellar team included GD Birla, Kasturbhai Lalbhai, Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas and Sir Shri Ram, apart from JRD Tata himself.

In addition, JRD also brought to bear the intellect of the finest technocrats – Sir Ardeshir Dalal, AD Shroff and Dr John Mathai, who went on to become Finance Minister of India.

This resulted in a remarkable document which The Economist magazine termed “a commendable piece of enterprise”. It created a stir in those days, and impacted economic thinking in the years leading up to Independence. In many ways, the roadmap contained in the Bombay Plan anticipated that of the five-year economic plans of independent India. This happened because the best minds were brought together, to ensure excellence in a seminal piece of work.

JRD Tata also firmly believed that the pursuit of excellence requires the best leadership, with very high levels of ownership and commitment. Only such leadership can drive transformative change on a sustained basis. Therefore, much of his energy was invested in nurturing extraordinary corporate leaders, such as Sumant Moolgaonkar, Darbari Seth and Russi Mody – each of them became legends in their own right.

To institutionalise the process of leadership development, he conceived of the Tata Administrative Service, the central management cadre of the Tata Group, which has produced stalwarts such as Dr. Freddie Mehta, Xerxes Desai and R K Krishna Kumar. Sixty years later, the TAS remains a preferred choice of management graduates across the best business schools in the country.

This year, the Tata Group marks the 25th year of its highest in-house award, created to pay tribute to JRD Tata’s quest for excellence. It is called the JRD-QV award, and only those Companies which reach a very high threshold of business excellence can aspire to win this honour.

As we recall the legacy of this great man, perhaps the best tribute we can pay him is to pursue a similarly high standard of excellence in whatever we do, whether big or small, in our own lives.

The author is the Brand Custodian of Tata Sons, and author of “Tata Log”