Posted on 28-09-2014
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Italian art fascinated me when I first discovered it in my Kolkata art college. Coming as I did from my mud-house refugee colony then, I’d considered the solid structured British architecture college building itself to be a place of pilgrimage. Today I can see how it was art alone that saved me from extreme poverty where an important breadwinner in our joint family, my school teacher mother, was quite vulnerable, regularly bleeding from her nose and mouth from malnourishment and overwork.

Somehow I was terrified by school exams; that’s probably why I still have no degree beyond matriculation. But the art college entrance exam was most exciting. We had to draw a human figure in front of the professor, an exercise that our refugee colony neighbour, Subhinoy Uncle, had made me practice since childhood.  Subhinoy Uncle with his outstanding artistic talent was my role model. He couldn’t exploit art for livelihood generation so did some basic level work in electric supply. The incomparable learning I got from him was so vital that it’s like the blood of my art. It allowed me my first leapfrog into Kolkata Government College of Art and Craft.

Our college library exposed to me the high skill of Italian artists. Leonardo da Vinci’s quality of observation captured through sepia Conté drawing of drapery, the natural folds of fabric coming alive with just pencil sketching, made my mind turn upside down. He started my passionate love affair with incredible Mediterranean art and culture of the last 2000 years. Italy taught me artistic sense and elegance in art and industrial design.

Vincent van Gogh’s artistic palette changing from dark Dutch Potato Eaters to bright Sunflowers on arrival in France was my inspirational pull to go to Paris in 1973. So in art, Italy is my mind, France is my heart and Subhinoy Uncle is my blood.

Departing on Air India for Paris, something incredible happened. The air hostess announced a transit in Rome, and do you know what mesmerized me more? The airport’s name was Leonardo da Vinci! I didn’t know that. Actually I didn’t even know the meaning of transit. She said we could stay in the aircraft or disembark. I was enthralled but hesitant; what if plane flies away without me? Then I took the bold step of touching the airport floor. This immediately took me to another planet mentally, my first step on Mediterranean Europe, the country of Raphael, da Vinci, Michael Angelo that I had studied with my pencils in Kolkata Art College. Now here I was at their place, this unforgettable step on Rome airport with its elegant Italian marble flooring. All the money I had with me was $8; but I could not resist buying and posting a postcard to my mother about experiencing Europe. Italy continues to drive me to imbibe artistry and elegance in design.

In 1986 a famous Italian company hired my company to work for their pasta brand. Their Marketing wing was briefing me about how different all pastas are. We visited the factory to see how different shaped pasta come out from the machine. Lunch was organized with the company’s owner who spoke very good French. After lunch he took me back to the factory to show the pasta dough. He trained me on how from the same pasta dough, using the art of design through dissimilar moulds they change the shape and perception. This invites consumers to prepare diverse types of recipes with differently shaped pasta. I found his pasta explanation ingenious; I understood that Italian art and culture starts right from the food they eat. The art of the designs of penne, tripolini, fettuccine, rottini, farfelle, lasagne, tortellili, gnocchi, spaghetti and more were explained for 2 hours by this gentleman. He very often held a single pasta with 2 fingers and showed off its beauty in front of a table lamp. His elaboration on the culture of pasta was to help me express it in the branding. I met with him 6 more times to learn of the aesthetics to the eating enjoyment of pasta.

Having worked for many years with many Italian companies ranging from automobiles to food, FMCG to fashion, I’ve learned that Italian designers of different disciplines always look at any product’s aesthetics from its specific aesthetics angle. Actually I was surprised why such a great design society would call a French company like mine. In response they said the key attraction was the effective way we translated customer centricity into European and global strategy and design. When we worked to make Carapelli Italian olive oil into a global brand, the company allowed us total artistic license.  We translated the olive oil’s origin in Tuscany with very sophisticated imagery and disruptively broke tradition by putting the product in a thin whisky bottle type design so it didn’t look like oil. Only this brave, risk-taking Italian management could accept our new branding and structural packaging which subsequently made olive oil branding history and brought positive returns to the company.

If you walk down an Italian street you’ll rarely find anyone badly dressed. Irrespective of income, Italians seem to psychologically carry an elegance that I’ve not seen in many countries. In the past 18 months I’ve been associated with a terrific Italian whose body structure gives the living idea of Michael Angelo’s David sculpture. With my close affinity to Italian culture, we hit it off instantly; our relationship has transcended to philosophical areas. He invited my wife and me to spend Easter with his in-laws in the beautiful island of Sardinia.  At midnight mass in their parish church, the small village population, from children to geriatrics, was all there. The contrast of this old-style village church with stained-glass holy pictures and modern-dressed locals religiously singing classical hymns was amazing. On my left my wife, on my right my Italian David-featured friend is a pictorial canvas I will never forget. Let me continue to express my learning of Italian aesthetics through the window of this family next week.

To download above article in PDF : Psychologically aesthetic Italians

Source : The Indian Express


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Posted on 21-09-2014
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Japan was known for shoddy products before 1950. Humiliation from World War II defeat accompanied by atomic devastation perhaps made them determined to beat the West. Rising from wartime ashes, the Japanese performed the post-war economic “miracle” from 1950 to 1960 to become the world’s second most powerful economy in less than a decade.

It was a collective national willingness to change the quality perception of Japanese products. They understood then that claiming to be inventors may not be their route. Instead they paid incredible attention on how to adapt European and American invention in a different scale of aspiration and quality to surpass the customer’s expectation. From being fancy but tacky and of flimsy quality, Japanese products have since become the world’s benchmarks in quality with the value addition of miniaturization.

In one of my several visits to Japan on work, in the heart of Tokyo’s commercial district I got hungry seeing a Yaki Tori Restaurant signboard. I followed its directional arrow through a narrow staircase to the first floor. The restaurant chef was cooking tasty, healthy, deliciously aromatic hot food surrounded on 3 sides by customers sitting in bar stools. Behind them were small tables stuck to the wall filled with people, but nothing looked overcrowded. The condiments the chef needed were in a glass showcase behind him and neatly arranged below that were raw ingredients frequently replenished in well orchestrated tempo so nobody had to wait. Even if you don’t speak Japanese it’s not a problem as the Japanese menu translated into English has every dish communicated with beautiful pictures.

Between 2 persons in the bar-top or small tables is a set of interconnected sauce and spice bottles that fit into a wedged carrier.  Every tiny bottle has puzzle designs on it. When I asked the chef about these cute designs he explained how they serve functionality. You can’t mishandle placing the bottles anywhere you want, as the design integrates them into their carrier when the puzzle gets completed. It’s the best time, space and convenience management crockery I’ve seen. Guests get attracted to play with it and arrange it correctly, they never keep any sauce bottle outside the carrier. From procurement of raw products, to servicing crockery, sealed wet napkins to multiple usage of the arranged sauce carrier, there’s no wastage of time or space in the 700 sq ft that’s considered among the best Yaki Tori restaurants in Tokyo. This is unique miniaturization in the gastronomy industry. Having experienced the elaborate, regal way the French come up with sophisticatedly served delicious food, this miniaturization difference was incredible. The comparison with gigantic American restaurants and serving portions also instantly hit me on-the-face.

Do you know the 1957 Toyopet story? Japan, war-torn and labeled “bad” quality, had the guts to enter the US, challenging its gigantic car culture by offering a small car. But the Toyopet name which connoted toys and pets was dropped. But the Japanese managed to impose the mini-car culture of low cost maintenance, where of course the 1973 global petrol crises helped a lot. Apart from Volkswagen Beetle, no small car could market in America the way the Japanese succeeded.

High awareness of hygiene and sanitary conditions is another aspect that makes Japanese design so clean. When Japanese industries took the challenge to improve product quality, they somehow neglected safety. Improper handling of industrial waste resulted in Japan’s “4 big pollution diseases” like itai-itai (earlier in 1912) causing bone fractures and kidney disorders, minamata (1956) and niigata minamata (1965) that afflicted the central nervous system making patients insane, and yokkaichi asthama (1961) that caused chronic bronchitis. From here Japan became aware that chasing extreme economic growth could harm them harshly, that Nature would get her own back by bringing down a variety of calamities. That’s corporations started CSR to preserve and protect environment.

Researching on how to sell French luxury alcohol Remy Martin’s armangnac in Japan, my friends there suggested I’d learn about Japanese drinking habits by visiting their special drinking bars frequented by top corporate managers after work. These bars were very small in size but outstandingly well embellished, not glitzy. They serve high-end European drinks although the local sake comprised 80% of the market in the 1990s. Sophistication in this small space, from the barman to the crockery to ice cubes shaped in a special mold, was unforgettable. As armangnac was an ancient drink of the French monks, I had designed a glass bottle with the hammered effect and shape of a Middle Ages Catholic temple. The transparent plastic cap was elaborate like a chandelier. Interacting with people at the bar, they immediately liked the glass bottle for its sophistication, but said the intricate cap makes it lose its Middle Ages authenticity. To make it classy, it had to be changed to glass and be less complex.

Because of iPod, it seems like miniaturization started in the US. In reality when European or American tape recorders were big sized, Japan miniaturized entertainment instruments since the 1970s, although quality was questionable. Then Sony’s Walkman revolutionized music listening.  Having learnt design from France, Germany, Italy and America I was curious about why the Japanese conceptualized miniature products. Was it because a small island subject to natural calamities needed smaller, more portable objects during crisis situations? Japanese friends didn’t disagree, but said space is a big problem so miniaturizing objects made them more functional, and such design followed the intricacy of ancient Japanese art. Process is incorporated in Japanese culture as is visible in social life too, like their sado tea ceremony which is a highly embellish service system.

Japan taught me the value detailing and embellishment in design. Next week I will conclude my experiential learning of industrial design from 5 countries by taking you to Italy.

To download above article in PDF  Japanese miniaturization and embellishment

Source : Financial Express

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Posted on 14-09-2014
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Hard-core German discipline and process obsession that’s respected the world over is what I’ve learnt through experience. I apply this learning in all our consulting solutions providing ingenious customer centricity in projects.

While working on a global project end 1980s, three of my French colleagues and I went to Hamburg to meet one of our German clients for a project review. Scheduled to finish by 12:30 pm, our meeting stretched upto 1 pm. As we were getting up, the company caterer entered the room to place some steaming hot food. We exchanged happy glances, we were terribly hungry by then. “There’s no food invitation for a meeting that ends at 12:30 pm,” is what we were informed. Obviously the lunch was coming for the next meeting’s participants. Disappointed, we headed outside to savour famous German sauerkraut and sausage called currywurst, a popular snack in Hamburg. Herta Heuwer invented currywurst after World War II when British soldiers in Germany left her some ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and curry powder. Mixing these she created currywurst that’s become such a rage that a museum is dedicated to it, Deutsches Currywurst Museum, which estimates that Germans eat 800 million currywursts per year!

Unlike in other Western countries, German restaurants did not accept credit card payment then so we had to find an ATM machine. Many German outlets didn’t believe in dealing with plastic money. They preferred to see hard cash at the end of every day.  I later understood that Germany’s economy was the strongest because they followed stringent financial credit processes.

After a month when we returned to this same company for a 1 pm meeting, sure enough, a great lunch was laid out. We first enjoyed our meal with the client team before starting the meeting. This kind of German discipline is not something that Latin societies like France, Italy, Portugal or Spain were habituated to.

On another occasion I travelled to a German factory to finish a few product design prototypes. This was a French project, but everyone in Europe knows that the best quality prototyping can only be achieved in Germany. I planned to be here for 3 days of supervision. Unfortunately, on the first afternoon their production suddenly stopped. It was a crisis, they felt extremely embarrassed and shamefaced. The company’s senior management profusely apologized to me for this mishap and subsequent delay. I tried to assuage their discomfiture saying machines can sometimes go awry and that I will extend my stay by a day. The next day the company CEO came to inform me that some machine part had to be changed by one of their vendors, but that they were unable to find the root cause. He and his production managers were exceptionally worried about the root cause. This did not affect me as the work was resumed and coming along well.

At the end of the second day, they stopped the production. I was escorted to a meeting room and informed that they had found the root cause. They went on to say that the machine should not be used for this work as they were unsure about the output quality. They discovered that the parts causing the problem were procured from Portugal, hence they could not trust them to produce the quality of prototyping work I was demanding. They were sincerely regretful for this inconvenience. Thereafter on their own initiative they took care for my stay, travel and the next visit to their factory. Our prototype production was delayed by 15 days. Back in France I went to explain to my client, but found that the German factory CEO had already sent a letter of apology to my client for this disorderly performance, and conveyed that they would give a cost reduction of 50% for the delay. It sounded like this incident disturbed some kind of German religion.

When I returned to the factory after 15 days, everything was going well, everybody was happy. While working with the machine technician we discussed the earlier catastrophe. It seems their vendor could not source a particular German part so he had replaced it with a Portugal-made part. That conformed to European standards but not to German standards, the technician said with a smile. He assured me they were now using German parts again and so no longer facing problems. German standards are very different, he said, they never fail. Out of curiosity, I asked why. He explained that all kinds of torture tests are done on German tools or machinery before they go-to-market. In Germany, sub-standard quality is instantly rejected. “In Germany, machine error is considered as a human error and not tolerated,” he said.

At the age of 35 when my unique customer centricity expertise was gaining custom and spreading to clients in South and North America and European countries, I understood from Germany that strategy has to be intertwined with process and discipline in execution. In various countries, in whatever brand or industrial design I have been working in since, I have incorporated German process obsession while boiling down unique customer centricity from customer insights and local market experiences to strategy to final execution.

German process obsession translates to providing outstanding value to end customers when they are paying for it. Other European factories I’ve visited for ensuring design output from the machine would all confidently certify their own precision quality and process at a manufacturing level through the window of the German machines they use. Even with the invasion of Chinese proficiency in manufacturing, Germans still wear the badge for the world’s best process and quality of any engineering production. Their collective discipline makes the Germans process obsessive. In Germany, the interpretation of process standards and people quality at work is the same. My great learning was that without addressing stringent process quality standard in delivery, surpassing customer expectation can never be achieved. Your product and service cannot create as emotional connect to customers without having this outstanding quality that Germany stands for.

To download above article in PDF Process obsession

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Posted on 07-09-2014
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Growthmania, the need to scale up, is the American spirit of blossoming. From business, entertainment, living style to science and research, Americans always see everything big. From them I learnt how important it is to design products for mass scale production.

When Europeans arrived in this gigantic island since the 15th century, they got wealthy very fast. Land was free, vast forests gave them animals to hunt, wood for home building; there were many kinds of minerals like coal and oil to extract. They over-powered the native population and became the first industrialised capitalistic society. It’s possible that because the large immigrant population combined to form one continent-like country speaking one language, the feeling of scale is embedded in Americans. For six centuries now the world recognises bigness to be their culture.

I was recently watching Michael Jackson’s last rehearsals for his comeback concerts in London in 2007. After his shocking death, the rehearsals became a famous documentary film called “This is it.” The enormity of the rehearsal preparation is unbelievable. He had advertised for and auditioned the best dancers from across the globe, then invited the rapturous chosen ones to join him in performance. The large scale and global dimension of this rehearsal, its high quality routines, maintenance of clockwork discipline, hundreds of people controlling the stage lights and settings, and Jackson’s passion for perfection, is great entertainment by itself. The public would never have seen this in the actual performance. Only those present as participants during rehearsals would have enjoyed this phenomenon of the King of Pop’s gigantic practice sessions.

Another American example is of a Xerox corporation sales person, the first from a poor Jewish family to go to college, who then joined a Swedish drip coffee maker manufacturer called Hammerplast. In 1981, he was curious to know why a fledgling whole bean coffee shop in Seattle had ordered so many plastic cone filters from Hammerplast. Impressed with this client’s passion and knowledge of coffee, he joined them as Marketing Director the next year. On a business trip to Italy’s Milan he noted that almost every street or public square had espresso coffee cafes that people frequented for social or official meetings. Italy boasted of some 200,000 such cafes across the country. Returning to Seattle he tried persuading his employers to adopt the cafe concept, but they were not interested. Fired by the coffee retail business he totally believed in, he took a gamble to become an entrepreneur. His enthusiasm was such that even his previous employer gave him $ 100,000 to start business. By 1986 he raised $400,000 to open his first store, and two years later bought his previous employer’s coffee shop and brand name for $3.8 million. This big dreamer is Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks. He aggressively grew and expanded Starbucks from the US to 40 countries.

Just imagine how the big idea made Schultz to throw up his job to chase his conviction and the big gesture of his previous employers to back his adventure towards global success. Isn’t it hallucinating to learn this spirit of scaling up?

Now American ways have spread so far and wide that even their distance from India’s heterogeneous society is reduced. Around the corner, if you live in a metro, is McDonald’s where, after a client meeting recently, my colleagues and I dropped in for a quick lunch. As I was biting into my Big Mac (even the name has the word Big in it!), I saw one of our team members return to the counter with the French fries I got her, and come back shaking a paper bag. That’s when I discovered McDonald’s incredible marketing localization.

They’ve created a special “shake shake bag” for customized spicing of potato chips. A special piri piri, which means chilli in Africa, spice mix sachet and paper bag is available at the counter for Rs 15. My colleague put her potato chips, a certain quantity of the piri piri mix into the shake shake bag.  When she emptied the bag of chips on her tray, we saw colored, spicy, Indian French fries. This incredibly simple localization attracts even vegetarian Indians to enjoy American cultural offerings while creating their own spice levels. She said in Indian food outlets they give her what they cook, but here she can adjust her spice and sauce levels the way she wants to and in a hygienic way. Isn’t this a great way to scale up by connecting with the local spirit?

Personally, with my teams from France and India I’ve been to the US several times for different work including consumer research for farm machines to FMCG product and pharmaceutical products. After the research we’ve had consumers encouraging us, saying our work will certainly help our clients increase their business. This attitude of egging on people to become big and global, to smile, talk and share with strangers is a very North American trait. Their ability to simplify, to sell an idea differently while understanding the competitive environment has helped Americans to scale up business.

Another advantage I’ve observed in the US is that people often shift residence from one state to another with no regrets of having left a home state. They seem to have no root or attachment to any state and consider one another and any neighbour as American. This ability to adopt the whole country as their own certainly helps as a scaling up metaphor for business. American knowhow is to simplify any grand complex; they have outstanding customer centricity and the bigness of mind to appreciate others in the competitive world. My learning here has been that simplification and an open mindness to bench mark with the beats enables business to scale up.

To download above article in PDF Shake shake scale

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