Saturday, June 27, 2015

Total Factor Productivity: A Two Dimensional Matrix

Total Factor Productivity is an important concept in economics. It connotes the fact that factors other than capital and labour contribute to the output of an economic system. Total Factor Productivity (TFP) is the portion of output not explained by the amounts of inputs used in production. As such, its level is determined by the amount of inputs used in production, and by how efficiently and intensely the inputs are utilized in production. TFP growth is usually measured by the Solow Residual. An equation of Cobb-Douglas form is used to explain total output as a function of total factor productivity and the capital and labour productivity. While some economists believe that TFP is a key driver of economic growth, others believe that it is subject to annual variations and suffers from imperfect measurements.

The Conference Board in its Productivity Brief 2015 suggests that TFP growth is the result of a combination of improvements in efficiency (meaning, fewer inputs are needed for a given output) as well as technology and innovation (meaning, more output is achieved from a given input). It considers financial capital in terms of machinery, equipment and structures. It considers human capital in terms of skills and management competencies. Adding technology and innovation to this capital combination, it expects increase in output per worker hour. If jobs expand together with higher productivity there would be a growth in total output. The data presented by The Conference Board present a declining or flat growth situation in TFP, across the developed markets as well as emerging markets. It concludes that unless productivity growth picks up, key indicators of economic health would not pick up, affecting societal welfare.

Macro or micro?

National economic management is in the hands of policy makers in the Governments. They typically attempt to draw up policies at macro level that stimulate and attract national and international investments and support expansion of micro-level industrial, business and economic activity. Industries and businesses do require policy stimulation and support but probably there is a lot that can happen at micro level itself through higher productivity. The trickle-down effect of policy stimulation and bottom-up impact of productivity improvement would be synergistic. In fact, without the latter (of productivity improvement) inflow of capital arising from policy stimulation would cause further exacerbation in productivity scenario. Without productivity drivers in the economy flow of capital, even if stimulated by policy framework, could eventually ebb. The linkages between macro and micro are as important as discrete macro and micro improvements. This is particularly important for India given the legacy of socialist policies, inevitability of mixed economy and importance of domestic and foreign investments.

Industry gets organized in public sector (or Government owned sector), private sector (or citizens, individually or collectively, and in joint sector (Government and people ownership). There is also the concept of public-private partnership. Although all of these are organizational entities, they are considered to vary significantly in respect of productivity practices, which are in turn linked to management approaches. The common view is that public sector is sought to be influenced by the Governments while private sector seeks to influence the Governments. The former, it is felt in some quarters, is a convenient instrument for economic stimulation and job creation while, likewise in some quarters, the latter is arraigned as an opportunistic instrument for market capitalization and rent seeking. The joint sector and public-private partnerships are stuck in the middle, often gridlocked with ownership differences. The polemical perceptions should not be allowed to influence a genuine focus on total factor productivity which is essential for any organization (and economy), regardless of organizational nature or ownership (or economic policies).


Within the limits of what is humanly possible and within the perspectives of work-life balance, the greater the output that is achieved from certain inputs, productivity movement is supported. This, in turn, helps economic growth. This is applicable for all organizations. The totality with which a policy issue is considered and the speed with which the policy thought is converted into executive action defines productivity of national governance. The comprehensiveness with all inputs are aggregated and the competitiveness with which the aggregate is converted into a product or service for the customer defines the productivity of industrial management. The productivity of governance is impacted by certain democratic structures and processes, be it in US and Japan or India and China. The productivity of industry may be impacted by policy framework but is largely within organizational control.

Unfortunately, over the last several years, productivity as a concept is overshadowed by competitiveness. Individual and system productivities are considered to be of lower significance than businesses competitiveness; and competitiveness is defined in terms of either product differentiation or cost leadership. The emergence of concepts of competitiveness is welcome but the dilution of focus on productivity is not so helpful. Productivity has a strong connotation of intrinsic efficiency improvement in an absolute sense while competitiveness has a connotation of getting better of another in a relative manner. While the concept of competitiveness may be helpful at an overall business level, organizational management has to continue to be focused on productivity. There have, of course, been criticisms of productivity that it lacks a business perspective and could lead to sub-optimization of the total system even if the sub-systems are productive. One can safely premise, however, that without productivity there cannot be competitiveness.

Productivity matrix

Productivity is all about efficiency and effectiveness. The concept itself needs to be deployed efficiently and effectively for the concept to deliver results in today’s scenario. True and authentic productivity analysis becomes possible when it is viewed as a matrix of value chain management and total factor deployment. A worker being productive on a manufacturing line in terms of components produced in a given unit of time would not help in the system productivity if the product is not packaged well or is not transported safely and delivered on time. Managing the value chain on an end to end basis would be of no avail if factors of productivity in each constituent are not taken into account to develop effective input-output metrics. Some firms view this need (if at all they recognize the concept) as more relevant for integrated companies which control all activities of the value chain. Firms also consider outsourced activities to be adequately measured in terms of productivity just through their cost competitiveness.

The fact, however, is that productivity matrix is relevant for all activities and for all firms. A highly research oriented innovation-dependent firm as well as an operations oriented manufacturing-driven firm would benefit by the concept of productivity matrix. In the former, at a gross level, more inputs may seem to lead to better output because the probability of an innovative discovery would improve with more work streams. However, in each work stream experimental productivity is vital. On the other hand, in repetitive work environment smooth flow, seamless coordination and freedom from defects support productivity. Productivity does not mean error-proof activities; rather it means discovering the cause of errors and enhancing output. Measurement systems for finished products ensure product quality but they would not assure zero defects. Understanding the output profile, in terms of quality and productivity, of the material supplier would, on the other hand, ensure productivity. Quality and productivity are interrelated. High quality leads to high productivity while just a rate of production without quality assurance would lead to poor final output.

Matrix measurement

Total factor productivity would work only if inputs and outputs at each stage of the value chain are fully understood and measured. There are more inputs than labour, capital and technology as commonly understand; nor are all the inputs linear and variable. Usually the three common inputs of labour, plant & machinery and technology are expressed in common financial terms and used as denominator. It is possible to granulate the inputs into sub-classifications such as direct labour, indirect labour, permanent employees, contract employees, energy, other utilities, land, building, equipment, direct materials, indirect materials, long term capital, short term capital, investments in R&D and so on. The granulation becomes relevant to compare and contrast productivity measurements across industries, firms and time. Adjustment for parity helps managements understand true operational productivity.

There are other process related variables as well, which impact productivity. In governance, the discussion and decision making structures (for example, ministerial versus bureaucratic or individual versus committee) impact productivity. On a shop floor, the feeder systems for materials and components (centralized versus decentralized versus delivered on spot or taken from store) determine the level of productivity. In a research laboratory, the access to global intellectual property databases and the availability of patent evaluation and patenting infrastructure determine the level of productivity. With respect to human capital the processes adopted and time invested for writing down operating procedures and training people in them determine the level of productivity. While all these are doubtless captured in financials, gross indexes convey little direction for improvement.

Organizing for TFP

Most productivity departments in firms are confined to shop floor as industrial engineering or productivity improvement departments. More recently operational excellence has come up as a more contemporary nomenclature. Yet, a preoccupation with manufacturing remains the unchanged focus. As discussed in this blog post, productivity is a much more comprehensive concept covering the total value chain with multiple factors in each stage of the matrix. A total factor productivity department needs larger organizational appreciation and leadership commitment. Economists are rightly intrigued to capture what is not covered in total factor productivity; it is time that industrialists, businessmen and administrators begin to get intrigued about and interested in what is yet to be covered for measurement of total productivity.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 27, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

Un-parking of Tata Nano Car: From Parking Spaces to Electric Mobility!

Every time one travels in the crowded traffic on the Indian roads one cannot but notice the sight of small families (husband and wife with their two children) navigating dangerously. Rattan Tata’s vision of providing such families a safe, comfortable and economical transportation mode in terms of Tata Nano car has unfortunately translated itself into a muted reality. The failure of Tata Nano to fulfil the dream is seen by the company as a technical and marketing issue. As a result there have been sincere and consistent efforts to upgrade the car and also reposition it as a vehicle for the young Generation Next. These moves have also not set the sales graph soaring. The changes made indeed are significant given the fact that Nano with its micro-compact form factor is already an engineering marvel.

The new 2015 Nano GenX car comes with an expanded product line up, covering three manual and two automated transmission variants. Apart from cosmetic changes like improved bumpers and smoked headlamps, the range comes with two key enhancements: automated manual transmission (with enhanced fuel economy) and hatchback opening for accessible boot space. At a higher ex-showroom price of Rs 215,000 to Rs 300,000, Nano car is now positioned as a car for the well-to-do young people, a major departure from the original positioning as the world’s lowest priced small car (at Rs 100,000) for the needy. Clearly, the repositioning of Nano as a peppy car for the college going students and young executives is underway. That leaves the fans of Nano’s original concept as a unique affordable car for the bottom of the income pyramid quite disappointed.


Indian transportation scenario is woefully space constrained. India’s population density per kilometre of metalled road is one of the highest in the world even as the per capita vehicle ownership is one of the lowest in the world (200 million registered motor vehicles, 5 million kilometre roads, and 1.2 billion population). The car density per kilometre of metalled roads at 40,000 (approximately) is also one of the highest. To compound the misery, annually 22 million vehicles are being manufactured for use in Indian roads, aggravating the problem beyond imagination. Most metros and upcoming cities suffer from hours of traffic gridlocks. Habitats are built with inadequate parking space. Even modern day offices have poor parking space. A study of office development shows that for every 100 employees in an office only around 10 car parking slots and around 40 two wheeler parking slots are likely to be available. The situation in shopping districts is no better; a 100 store shopping mall (with a multiplex additionally thrown in) or a hi-street of retail and pavement shopping, each of which sees 5000 shoppers daily has no more than 300 car parking slots and strangely just the same number of two wheeler parking slots!

The fact that approximately 77 percent of the output of 22 million units of automobiles in India is contributed by two wheelers indicates the tremendous need for mobility and also the attractive potential for switch to passenger car mode (right now, 15 percent of the output at 3 million units is in passenger car segment).  The Indian automobile industry is the sixth largest in the world and is poised to grow to be the third largest in the world by 2020. The relentless march of automobile congestion on Indian roads is likely to only intensify in future. While part of this may be mitigated by greater expansion in rural markets (where practically no roads exist) the inevitability of an overall space constrained transportation scenario in a growth oriented India is easy to imagine. The challenge for Tata Motors is whether this represents an opportunity but only with reference to other larger cars and countless two wheelers on the roads. No extent of technical upgradation or market repositioning would help Nano achieve its full potential for two reasons: (a) it is optimally developed already for the purpose and (b) the optionality of Nano is parking space related and not specification related.

Logistics challenge

As mentioned earlier, Nano has been innovatively designed vis-à-vis contemporary small cars and appropriately positioned in the huge potential market space. The challenge in driving up Nano sales to its full potential is neither a product nor market challenge, therefore. It is simply a logistics challenge that is two fold: (a) identifying target users who have adequate parking space but need to be weaned to Nano concept and (b) reaching out to natural Nano customers and finding a parking space for them. This strategy has to be city and habitat specific. If Tata Motors is serious about realizing the full potential of Nano nothing short of a user-parking census would be required. Depending on the resources the company is willing to commit, the project could be taken up as a regional project or a national project.

In this Nano paradigm, Tata Motors may find collaborative stakeholders who may seem unlikely collaborators at the first go. Real estate developers are the first stakeholder group. Tata Motors as an entity, and Tata Group as a whole, may carry out some introspection in this regard. Tata is a major player in the real estate sector covering both luxury and affordable home sectors (the latter with Tata Value Homes). There is no evidence at all that Tata Motors has any coordinated strategy to link up with Tata Value Homes whose customers are also likely to be Nano customers. Similarly, coordination with high-rise developers and gated community developers as well as urban planners in each city would develop pathways to identify customer groups who would have usage overlaps.  It is necessary for Tata Motors to deploy such logistics analytics to map out the workable market.

Value propositions

Once the seriously inclined target customer pools are identified, the next challenge would be to develop value propositions that would make them the buyers of Nano cars. While the high fuel economy of 26 kmpl is, in itself, a major value proposition, more relevant and customised value propositions would be needed. Tata Motors may tie up with Tata Value Homes to offer Nano cars instead of cash discounts. With other developers more arm’s length promotional deals can be considered. There could be other options like reducing lifecycle ownership through subsidized sales, mobile dealer and servicing units, especially near target communities, bundled offers with other cars and assured buybacks. Nano may also be positioned as a call-taxi, specially customized for lady drivers and lady customers with GPS tracking and other safety features.

Tata Nano is one of the most complex consummate product-market challenges ever borne. An elegant design and expansive market ought to have made for perpetual value. On the other hand, the product and market failed to discover even the basic value. Nano’s issue and the discussion in this blog post on rediscovering the potential point to an immutable but underexploited law of marketing that some products are not just products but are fundamental concepts. Xerox copying, Kodak film and Sony Walkman of yesteryears and Apple iPad, iPhone and Watch of current times are such concepts. Nano car is also nothing less than that. It is unfortunate that its introduction as any other car erased the value of the fundamentally differentiated concept of what Nano would have been. It is not too late, however.

Electric mobility

Nano’s future does not merely lie in rediscovering its potential as discussed herein. It would lie in taking it to the next logical technological horizon, which is its transformation into an electric car. Nano, in terms of its lightweight and cute-looking design is an ideal platform for conversion into an electric car. Nano Electric would be an ideal concept in terms of environmental sensitivity and lifestyle complementarity. The stakeholders discussed in this blog post would be more than delighted to tie up with Tata Motors to provide exclusive charging points and parking spaces to Tata Nano. Even the urban planners and city space developers would be happy to provide exclusive and preferential parking lots in public spaces for Nano Electric.

Tata Motors could perch Nano motors as an electric self-driving car in this quest for newer technological horizons. Tata should forge a multi-entity collaboration with firms committed to clean transportation such as Google and Tesla to take Nano to the next higher level. Philosophically, some products need not be products of individual firms adding numbers to their annual income statements. They have an amazing potential to evolve as global heritage products, transforming the way certain conventional activities are performed. Tata Motors can continue to treat Nano as a unique product in its large portfolio or release it for a futuristic global evolution. Nano could be a perfect example of a product concept innovated in India, designed, developed and manufactured in India and scaled up and transformed for an astounding global sweep!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 20, 2015       

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Missed Opportunities but Neither Last nor Lost Opportunities!

When in 2005 the Ambani brothers, Mukesh Ambani and Anil Ambani, split the huge conglomerate business Reliance Empire of their late father Dhirubhai Ambani, the telecommunications business, along with a few other perceived growth businesses like infrastructure and financial services, went to Anil Ambani Group. The established businesses of oil, gas and textiles remained with Mukesh Ambani. At that point of time, the telecommunications business was seen as one of the growth engines of the future for the Reliance Group and it must have been difficult for the Mukesh Ambani group to relinquish the business. Given the loss of the talent base to the Anil Ambani group, any non-compete clauses that could have come into force as a result of the business division and the licensing regime that existed at that point of time the giving up of the telecommunications business would have been viewed as a departure from the domain, never meant for re-entry by the Mukesh Ambani group.

The clock has turned full circle by mid-2015, however. Addressing the 41st Annual General Meeting of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) on June 12, 2015, the flagship company of his group, Mukesh Ambani, RIL Chairman outlined the operating and commercialization plans for Reliance Jio, the group’s highly ambitious 4G telecom venture.  According to him, Reliance Jio, from the start would deploy the latest 4G or fourth generation telecom technology, also called LTE or Long-Term Evolution to offer wireless broadband as well as voice services. He also said Jio would achieve 100 percent national coverage in just three years. He promised to make the 4G revolution affordable by bringing 4G LTE smartphones to India at a price less than Rs 4000 by December 2015 by when the beta testing operations would be expanded into regular commercial operations. All this alongside massive investments in the other existing and new businesses, all in all aggregating to Rs 2 lakh crore over the next 12 to 18 months!

Late, latest

The Reliance Jio venture is a powerful story of how one may miss or lose an opportunity, advertently or inadvertently, but could still re-enter the domain, at times with a greater scale and scope. For example, in the case of Reliance Jio, the re-entry is coupled with national broadband license, pan-India cable television multi-system operator (MSO) license and entry into broadcast TV distribution. This will enable Jio’s 4G services and phones beam HD television, video on demand and various other media services. Given that the use of data services is still a minor share of Indian Telcos’ (Bharti, Idea, Tata DoCoMo and RCom, for example) revenues, one may expect Jio to make a major foray into data based services as well. In addition, the deployment of latest generation technology implies/requires deployment of latest generation equipment across the network as opposed to upgrades to a 3G network. There are probably a few fundamental principles of business or life, in general that can be gleaned from the above.

Firstly, there is really no concept that being late in the game would necessarily mean being never in the game in future. Being late in the game, however, may provide the opportunity in business to be the latest in the game, be it in terms of products, services, infrastructure or operating processes. Obsolescence and opportunity tend to be the two sides of the same coin. Another principle is that being the latest does not necessarily mean that one would remain contemporary in future. In a related manner, being driven down by competition does not mean that business can never be driven up.  Business and life are too complex in canvas and too rollercoaster in ride to be concluded in a simplistic manner at certain cross sections of time. Rather than worry over missed or lost opportunities, individuals and industrialists would do well to be prepared for the next opportunity. This blog post looks at a few approaches to be prepared for future successes even in the face of short term setbacks. 
Value the existing

A firm would obviously aim at a new opportunity to expand and diversify or overcome the likely decline of the current business. The principal goal in all these cases is to ensure growth and build value. One would therefore presume that a missed opportunity would, at the minimum, mean loss of time in achieving the goals. The logic is similar for a graduate who desires a postgraduate specialization but misses out the opportunity. The first response in such cases must be to refocus on the existing businesses and make them stronger. This is what the Mukesh Ambani group did in the aftermath of the split. It made its core oil, petrochemicals, gas, plastics and polymer businesses stronger with additional inputs of capital and technologies and with an additional drive for scale. The capital allocated for new (missed) businesses needs to be effectively deployed in the short term to generate more cash for the future. 

Serendipity and happenstance at times help businesses discover their true full value. Companies which miss their acquisition targets are able to refocus and discover greater value in organic development or newer inorganic opportunities. Aditya Birla Group lost on the L&T bid but went on to refocus on their core metals, cement, power, and textiles businesses. Research on well managed companies, Reliance included, guides us that failed opportunities trigger renewed vigour in established businesses. When Hero group and Honda Corporation split themselves out of their Hero Honda joint venture, they lost out an opportunity to continue to combine their global technology and local marketing capabilities with new products. Such missed opportunity has made the two companies refocus on their innate capabilities and emerge successfully with own capabilities in both product and market spheres.

Keep the eye on

Missing or losing an opportunity and the corresponding refocus on the existing business does not mean that one should lose sight of or ignore the missed/lost opportunity. Prudence requires the firms to remain open and prepared for re-emergence of such opportunities. Reliance Jio is a result of such approach. Not only that, the Reliance Group’s reopening of the closed retail oil filling stations in the new decontrolled oil pricing situation is another example (they had to be closed down as they could not compete with the subsidized administered prices of public sector oil companies earlier). Another classic case is that of Tata Group’s keen interest to enter the aviation sector. Though prevented by previous policies, the Group remained observant of the trends and eventually entered the aviation sector in recent times with a minority stake in AirAsia India and as a joint venture with Singapore Airlines.

‘Keeping the eye on’ requires a continuous 360 degree evaluation approach by the strategists and businessmen. It also requires certain strong premises as to why the missed out or lost businesses were considered for entry in the first place. These two approaches, coupled with generation of cash from refocused established businesses enables firms to be prepared for re-entry. These approaches together with the founder’s passion make such renewed efforts amazingly successful. Such re-entry should never be on re-dusted and refurbished old plans. Instead, the entire plan must be recast to cater to changed scenarios including use of new technologies and new ways of doing businesses. A continuous study of industries, products and markets as well as technologies would need to be institutionalized. A Group level think tank or brains trust helps firms be prepared with superior solutions at all times.

Aim larger

Entering a product-market space, years later, after a missed out or lost opportunity does not mean that the firm has to be modest in its approach on the assumption that the space is dominated by the current incumbents. Instead, the firm can well (and probably should) be ‘disruptionist’ in its approach and aim larger and better on the strength of breakthrough products and marketing. Reliance JIo promises to do that exactly. Having lost out the early edge on Cloud and Open Platforms, Microsoft is now doing that exactly on a larger scale with wider range of devices. The key in such an approach is, of course, technology on one hand and capital on the other.

Indian aviation scene is characterised by bruised completion. Yet Tata-SIA airline VIstara has succeeded in bringing certain boldness and freshness to its aviation entry even at the late stage. Oftentimes, such re-entry requires a robust and passionate icon as an internal motivator and external mobilizer. Ratan Tata’s passion kept Tata’s aviation plans ready to take off. Satya’s break with the past enabled a larger Cloud play by Microsoft. As a lateral but relevant example, re-entry of BJP as a national mainstream party in the last year’s elections has been made possible by the iconic efforts of Shri Narandra Modi. Founders, industrialists and strategists must see every missed/lost opportunity to script a larger and more formidable success story in the future, which they personally lead.

Neither the last nor the lost

Some management experts urge managements to deprioritize established businesses and consciously seek new businesses (for example, the four quadrant BCG Business Matrix). One way to present such a business approach more positively is the three horizon McKinsey approach, wherein the first horizon is the established business which provided (and still provides) cash for new businesses and would eventually fade away, the second horizon the previously invested growth businesses which are beginning to make a contribution, and the third horizon the seeds of the future which require investments for expected growth (but also with uncertain returns). The issue with this approach is that it conditions the business mind to a certain ‘phase-out; phase-in’ business process continuum which is not necessarily the optimal. An iterative business approach taking a reasonably long time horizon is always helpful.  The continuing success of the established oil and petrochemical business and the likely success of the newer telecom business of Mukesh Ambani business group is proof enough of this.

There is no doubt that opportunities are the moments of destiny for firms and people to grasp and grow. Converting the opportunities into realities is a very deliberative and actionable leadership process but is fraught with its own uncertainties. The ability to leverage opportunities is dependent on a host of factors, ranging from internal preparedness to external environment. Internally, one may be constrained by non-alignment of stakeholders or underestimation of needed resources. Externally, one may stumble upon unexpected competition or inexplicable regulatory hurdles. It would be counter-productive to view the missed or lost opportunities as a reflection of the competencies of the firm or the individual; rather due lessons need to be learnt and the next foray fortified with increased alertness and preparedness. Likewise, it is somewhat delusory to be complacent that today’s latest would always remain the latest. What works for the re-discoverer today could work for another re-discoverer tomorrow. As the suffix Jio in Reliance Jio means, life, business or individual, is one of living long to the best!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 13, 2015 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

S P Balasubrahmanyam (SPB or SP Balu): Seven Leadership Lessons from the Superstar of Sapta Swaras

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam (popularly called SPB or SP Balu), born on June 4, 1946, is a legendary singer of South Indian Cinema (Telugu and Tamil, especially).  SPB is, however, a truly national singer having sung over 40,000 songs (a Guinness Book record) in various Indian languages including Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Assamese, Hindi and Sanskrit. He is also the only singer to have received four national awards for his songs in four different languages. He won the National Film Award from the Government of India six times and Nandi Film Award from the Government of Award twenty five times. He is the recipient of high civilian honours from the Government of India; Padma Shri in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2011. SPB is truly multifaceted with additional capabilities as music director, dubbing artiste (including for superstars such as Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth), film maker, movie actor, and television artiste. He is fondly referred to as Gana Gandharva by connoisseurs of music.

SPB is probably the only singer whose voice powered the superstars of Indian Cinema from the 1960s to date. His voice moulded itself mellifluously and perfectly to diverse stars such as M G Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, N T Rama Rao, A Nageswara Rao, Krishna, Sobhan Babu, Chiranjeevi, Balakrishna, Nagarjuna, Ajith and Vijay (just to quote a few names) as well as a host of new age actors. The way he sang (and would still sing) for each of the actors showed amazing versatility besides imbuing the songs with the vocal expressions and intonations unique to each actor. He was comfortable in songs of all genres; be it of the purest religious serenity or the wildest romantic sensuality. His voice rendered songs of heart-touching pathos as well as rib-tickling comedy, with equal felicity. While there have been great male singing legends in India – Saigal, Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh, Talat, Ghantasala, Sreenivas, Soundararajan, Hariharan and Shankar – no one had, and has, his ability to express the Bhava with feel in songs. 

Tide of music

Another unique feature of his versatility is his constant reinvention of voice to scale new highs in melody and purity. His rendering of classical songs in Sankarabharanam catapulted him to international fame while his rendering of devotional songs in Annamayya and Sri Ramadasu got him new accolades as the King of Bhakti and Bhava. Although never trained in classical music, SPB has an amazing grasp of the Sapta Swaras. All of his romantic songs in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada have a natural and spontaneous verve and vibrancy, unmatched by any other singer. His Hindi songs for Kamal Hassan in Ek Duje Ke Liye and his songs for Salman Khan (Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, for example) provided a unique velvety feel to the Hindi romantic movies. Age could do nothing to reduce the quality of his voice. Yet, unfortunately, his voice is no longer heard in recent generation film songs. What started as a specific mission by A R Rahman to bring new voices to the screen became a trend to hire any and every instrumentalist as a music director and field any and every voice as a singer, to the detriment of quality and melody. Changing trends in music that drifted towards youthful banality, rhythmic excitement and non-nativity also led to erosion of melody oriented musical mountings.

In addition to the above, a package system by which a music director is paid a consolidated amount to cover the total cost of music including costs of music composition, musicians, orchestra, recording studio and singers has led to music directors economizing by deploying low cost new singers instead of high cost established singers like SPB. With young as well as aging heroes seeking freshness through new voices even at the cost of clarity of expression, established singers like SPB and K J Yesudas, another incomparable masterly singer, were becoming incompatible with the new film music ecosystem. SPB also became outspoken against the disturbing trends in film music including loss of melody and import of non-native singers unmindful of linguistic errors. As a result, as opposed to yesteryears when a music disk was full of SPB songs, one would be lucky to see SPB on any music album. All this has not deterred SPB from remaining as a leader in contemporary singing. SPB, the Superstar of Sapta Swaras, offers seven valuable lessons to young and old alike as to how a leader can always be a leader.  

Professional passion

The fundamental foundation of any leadership development is passion for a profession. The roots one develops in a profession determine the core competencies of a leader. It is said that as a first year student of College of Engineering at Anantapur, SPB’s passion was displayed in constant singing. Although he had to move to Madras to pursue the alternative of AMIE, the passion for music never ebbed in him; from being a singing lead in IliayaRaja and Gangai Amaran music band to calling on music directors until the entry success, SPB’s passion to make a career in singing was unflinching. This commitment is the foundation for all successful professionals. Youngsters would do well to be passionate about their interests. Being passionate needs, of course, to be supplemented by being expressive and executive.

Maximal accomplishment

Just as time waits for no one, accomplishments do not wait for time. When one can achieve one must. SPB never got deterred by the attributed inadequacies of young age such as nascent and light voice nor the competition induced by others. He chose to drive home each advantage provided by his linguistic capabilities, voice modulation and emotional expression to keep singing. He is said to hold the record for recording as many as nineteen songs in a day and working for minimum of twelve hours at a stretch. It is said that in his heydays recording of twelve to sixteen songs per day was the norm. By lending his voice to all actors and for all situations and with all music directors, including maestros and stalwarts like M S Viswanathan, K V Mahadevan, Pendyala Nageswara Rao, S Rajeswara Rao, Rajan-Nagendra, Satyam, Keeravani, Ilaiyaraaja, A R Rahman, Lakshmikant-Pyarelal and Anand-Milind  he has not only achieved maximal singing, in both quantity and quality, but created for himself a rich music bank which can inspire others.

Continuous learning

While a young Rafi and a young Mukesh were probably the same in their respective range and depth at the beginning and end of careers, SPB kept on learning and improvising. He demonstrated exceptional grit to learn informally what he did not get trained in formally (like classical music) and to get mentored by music composers of exceptional standing. As a result, the voice of Balu continued to feel fresh and unique each year. An essential feature of leadership development is learning not only through experience but also through scaling new heights and willing to be mentored. Interestingly, even the best tend to pause at some point(s) in their carriers. He observed and absorbed (and remembers and recounts) each and every musical episode of his life thus becoming a living encyclopaedia of Indian music. If only SPB was willing to apply his continuous learning methodology to the new genre of music, he would have probably continued to offer meaningful additions for music lovers and even reformed the cacophony of the new generation music.

Self- mentoring

Over the last few years, mentoring has come to be seen as distinct from performance, and in fact as the prerequisite for leadership. Not all can have the advantage of being gifted or provided with mentors; self-mentoring is an effective pathway. SPB’s competitive spirit took him to music competitions where his talent was spotted by a select group of film celebrities including S Janaki, an accomplished singer and S P Kodandapani a versatile music director. The latter gave SPB the first break in film songs and continued to mentor in a creative and caring manner in his formative years. SPB, thereafter, developed himself through observation and experimentation. SPB was the first choice for master directors like K Viswanath, K Balachandar, K Raghavendra Rao and Bapu which gave repetitive opportunities for out-of-the-world songs, which he fully leveraged.  Youngsters have role models all around who are not necessarily their teachers or students; self-mentoring through observation is a viable approach.   

Sowing the seeds

One must do something different when one is fully busy and not when one has nothing else to do. This helps the individual sow the seeds of a new wave of growth for the future whether or not the chips are down for the person in later stage life. When SPB was at the peak of his singing career in the 1990s, he collaborated with E-TV to launch the first native singing talent show called Padutha Theeyaga in 1996. The pioneering show in which SPB donned the role of both judge and mentor for all aspirant musical talent, children, adolescents and adults, became a trendsetter and has completed more than 500 episodes. Many participants and winners of the programme went on to become ace singers in their own right. The seeds which SPB had sown two decades ago has now given him a continuing platform to leverage his musical knowledge and reputation to reformat Padutha Theeyaga and re-launch it in different geographies including USA. It is amazing as to how kids who cannot speak Telugu are able to sing the most complex Telugu songs with perfection in the programme. The power of a programme launched when SPB was busy continues to remain as his iconic mainstay in a generation of changing musical values!

Setting own standards

An important hallmark of leadership is setting of standards. An aspirant leader in his or her formative years tries to meet or exceed the standards set by other leaders in his or her field but quickly goes about setting his or her own standards. SPB became a legend because he set his own differentiated standards even from his very early times when colossuses strode the musical scene. Even today, he is uncompromising in his standards, correcting and coaching youngsters to make them follow the correct Telugu diction, express the correct emotion and follow the correct swara sangathulu, even though he is aware that they are born as Indian Americans! A leader faces a dilemma when the standards expected by the environment become lax. That is when the message of the supreme raga-bhava songs of the yesteryears sung so powerfully by SPB in the musical masterpieces such as Shankarabharanam (of K Viswanath – K V Mahadevan) and Annamayya (of K Raghavendra Rao – M M Keeravani) teaches us the immortality of uncompromising standards.

Staying relevant

Times change, leaderships mellow and legacies remain. As SPB says in many a public forum he would continue to sing as long as his human faculties permit and in the event the choice of rebirth is given to him, he would like to be reborn as SPB regaling millions of listeners. He had many avenues built through his artistic career to stay relevant; as an ace singer, music composer, dubbing artiste, character actor and of course as a lead singer (in the last case, even if more choosy than he was earlier). For a leader to be missed and wanted, the leader must stay relevant through his or her own creativity and passion, and not necessarily mimic others in an effort to change with the times. SPB with his fresh and adaptive voice, evocative and expressive emotion, versatile range and depth became relevant as a leader for changing times, at all times. As the contemporary times globalized further, he continued to be relevant and possibly busier than ever by discovering new young talent through programmes such as Padutha Theeyaga, reconnecting with the millions through programmes such as Swarabhishekam, reviving musical culture through programmes such as America-lo Raga Sagarika and supporting charities through live stage shows of music.

Legendary leadership

SPB on stage or in a show is not merely a musical delight to experience; he is also a leader to appreciate and absorb the nuances of leadership. The nuances of leadership are that knowledge must be reinforced with erudition, achievement with humility, professional leadership with emotional connect and core competencies with related adjacencies. Shows of arts and sports as well as consummate artistic performance and scintillating sportsmanship add thrill and joy to everyday lives. The sportsmen and artistes make the world a better place to live in and make life a little more joyous and a little less stressful. However, behind and leading to each event and each legend there are lessons of management and leadership that also need to be brought out, discussed and absorbed.

As the life of the prolific and melodious singer S P Balasubrahmanyam, the king of swapta swaras with his multi-faceted talent, demonstrates, legendary leadership is possible with seven principles. These are (i) seeking excellence in chosen profession with passion, (ii) accomplishing to the fullest potential to create a legacy, (iii) continuous learning with changing times and mellowing age, (iv) self-mentoring alongside inspired performance, (v) sowing the seeds for future even when busy, (vi) setting increasingly high standards for oneself and others, and (vii) staying relevant to times through creative rediscovery and perceptive connectivity. All music lovers, including the author, would love SPB’s voice as melodious, vibrant, versatile and energetic as ever but the author would still like to see the next phase of artistic leadership in SPB that would make his inimitable talent to reignite the music tracks of films of all genres in all languages, once again!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 6, 2015