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The Information industry is booming and bringing all of us together. The connection is “happening” with various networking technologies. This globalization is challenging our language skills and redefining the business strategy of the corporate world. Is the way we conduct business changing or is the way we manage our business? Should industries embrace each other more particularly engineering with information technology? Are people targeting employers or organizations targeting employees? A chance reading of a short and simple but a strong and powerful book ‘The Ice Cream Maker: An Inspiring Tale About Making Quality The Key Ingredient In Everything You do’ illustrates how businesses can instill quality into our work force/culture and into every product that we design, build, and market. This probe led me to one of the most enterprising authors of contemporary America, who happens to originate from the literary capital of India – Bengal. Meet Subir Chowdhury, the strategic thinker of the generation x business model of America, the reason he was chosen to be the Inspirational Michigan Indian.

In this brief interview with Anupama Gopalakrishnan on an Miindia exclusive, Subir talks about his “passion” for the pen, the social fabric of life and how quality should not be limited to manufacturing, but should be embedded in an individual’s thinking and across all geographic boundaries. Subir’s ever-flowing energy and enthusiasm with a tireless race for higher goals clearly defines what true success entails. Read on…
 
Q: Subir, how and where did all this begin?
Thanks to my grandfather who was a primary school teacher. From day one, the whole concept of the pen and how powerful words could be were instilled within me by him. The more I grew up with him, the stronger the influence. I remember very vividly a small game he played with me. I was always asked to choose between a pen and a rupee. I always used to pick the rupee because with the rupee I could buy materials. But through this game he taught me a very valuable lesson about respecting the pen and how the pen could actually be the means to being the most powerful voice in the world. So, the pen was my companion and I felt that the pen has the magic to change the world.


Q: Did you read a lot as a student?
The whole habit of reading was inculcated in me when I was in the seventh grade. I used to take particular interest in reading about a book and if I liked the book I used to explore about its author. I used to get into minute details about the authors – where they lived and what they did. I used to write to the top authors and by the time I was 14, I was in communication with all the big laureates of Bengali literature. The best part is they communicated back to me. All this because of the one small element called a “pen”...
Subir Chowdhury is the author of twelve books, including the international bestseller The Power of Six Sigma, which has been translated in more than 20 languages and has sold more than a million copies worldwide. Chowdhury’s Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) is the first book on the topic and is credited with popularizing DFSS philosophy in the world. His Management 21C was selected as the Best Business Book of 1999 by Amazon.com in U.K. and translated into more than ten languages. His latest book titled The Ice Cream Maker garnered praise by leaders and prestigious media like The Washington Post, The Detroit News and has been distributed to every honorable Member of the U.S. Congress (Senators and House of Representatives).

Courtesy: www.subirchowdhury.com
 
Q: You have been hailed by Business Week as The Quality Prophet and by The New York Times as Leading Quality Expert, and advice Fortune 500 CEOs on quality and also writing bestselling books on the same topic. What does quality mean to you?
Quality is all about how you live with what you have. It is the ultimate passion you have for life. It is not about success. It is not about struggle. It is about living with whatever little you have in peace and in happiness. My quality guru is Mother Teresa. The reason being she symbolizes the ultimate quality through her care for humanity. She was not born in India, but deeply rooted with Indian culture. She was a perfectionist, which I define as ‘ultimate quality’. She did a lot of tough work, even dug dust bins to find lives. She and her team saved millions of lives in India and abroad. She was a “quality” individual as she succeeded in being happy, humble and embraced poorest and dying people all her life. She gave someone else inspiration, peace and a smile. Even though my professional work is known for improving process quality, but at the end of the day it is ‘people’ quality that takes care of ‘process’ quality..


Q: How did your education at IIT shape your character?
The Indian Institute of Technology is one of the very few institutions in India that provides opportunities for students with all backgrounds to not only fulfill the academic dreams; but also provides freedom to explore other talents. Just the IIT campus culture was so exciting in my days, I hope IIT continues this culture. What I learned in this culture, we IITians can excel on any field if we put our mind into it. I have always embraced literary works, whether it is fiction or not. It was on few of my IIT friends’ insistence that Panchajanya, a Bengali literary magazine was launched at IIT Kharagpur. Bengal forms a huge representation in the field of literature. During my freshman years at IIT, Kharagpur, there was no literary magazine. It took me three years of challenging time with IIT administration to launch Panchajanya – a name given by a famous Bengali laureate. During the launch of this magazine was the first time the word ‘entrepreneurship’ came into existence in my life. This was also the first time that a group of wanna-be engineers produced a true literary work and formed an exclusive connection between literature and engineering.

Even now, I always tell engineers: if you cannot appreciate nature or even as simple and beautiful as a child’s smile, how could you design a car that could be a driver’s delight?


Q: I heard this interesting story about you secured a bank loan without any collateral within few days after landing in the United States. How did you spring this?
I landed in the United States with $1200 in 1991 for my Graduate studies. I had to wait for a year for the U of M scholarship and so I decided to join the Central Michigan University to pursue my graduate study in the field of Industrial Management. I had a shortage of $200 for my course registration. First of America bank (currently owned by National City) gave me the loan. It is interesting because I got the loan without any collateral for the single purpose of being focused and committed. I had to earn it myself. No bank was willing to provide a loan to someone who just entered the country. I persisted and insisted to the extent that I also tried to pledge my IIT certificate to the bank manager to keep until I return back the $200 loan. Well, the official did not budge but eventually she gave me the loan as she told me that she couldn’t sleep that night due to my convincing arguments for the loan.


Q: Tell us about your first book writing venture? How it all started?
After my graduate degree, I joined GM in Saginaw, Michigan and my first assignment was in the field of quality. At GM, I used to get into a lot of troubles as I used to question everything and had tremendous passion to improve as many processes as possible in a short time. My passion to improve GM was not perceived properly by its middle managers. So I got involved with the non-profit professional societies like ASQ (American Society for Quality), SME (Society of Manufacturing Engineers) and SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers). During my voluntary works at these professional societies, I honed my leadership skills. At that time, QS-9000 was a hot topic, just introduced, no materials were available, neither any book was published on the topic. At the same time, I had an opportunity to edit the conference proceedings of the first QS-9000 conference organized by ASQ. During this conference, a business editor of a publishing company McGraw Hill requested me to write the first book on QS-9000. No information was available on the subject. So, I was little shaky to take the project as it will be my first book. Once I committed to write the book, I would definitely want it to be endorsed by all eminent Quality gurus prior to its publication. And it happened the way I wanted it. My first book QS-9000 Pioneers: Registered Companies Share Their Strategies for Success was endorsed by the industry’s best quality experts like Philip B. Crosby, Genichi Taguchi, and J.D. Power III. I had my book foreword written by Quality Guru Armand V. Feigenbaum. Every case study featured in the book was also reviewed by the renowned faculty from Harvard Business School and MIT’s Sloan Management School. The book was published in 1996.
 
Q: You were only 29 at the time when you first met Dr. Taguchi, how did you manage to impress him?
If you are a human being, anybody is touchable. It is in your mind, what you want to achieve. I continuously believed in it. I took the endorsement as a challenge for my first book. I questioned the gurus: is it the work or me that you are concerned about? In the field of quality, this was the first book literally brought all living quality giants together to review the works and later endorsed by all. At the ASQ Annual Quality congress, J.D. Power III, Dr. G. Taguchi, Philip Crosby and others flew down to Chicago to launch my first book. Once the book was launched, instantly I became an authority in the field of QS-9000. It was the quality of work that I believed in. I cared about the quality of the book so much that I refined manuscripts until all these gurus agreed to endorse the book. The compliments poured. “I understand QS-9000 better just because I read Subir’s book”, said Dave Power, founder of J.D. Power and Associates. Dr. Taguchi exclaimed, “I have written 40 books but I have not witnessed the grand launch of any ‘Quality’ book like this”. Dr. Taguchi expressed interest in writing a book with me on the same book launching ceremony. I was dumbstruck, I was in tears with joy. My second book was going to be with the man who I considered was the god father of Quality Engineering. I had to work 15-20 hours a day. Within three years of our first meeting, at MIT I launched my second book Robust Engineering: Learn How to Boost Quality While Reducing Costs & Time to Market co-authored with Dr. Genichi Taguchi and his son Shin Taguchi.
 

Did you know? Subir Chowdhury received the U.S. Congressional Certificate of Commendation presented by the Honorable 105th U.S. Congress for outstanding contributions to the U.S. automotive industry.

After distributing The Ice Cream Maker to all Members of Congress (House and Senate), Subir Chowdhury was invited to Washington, DC for formal recognition on the House Floor by Congressman Thaddeus McCotter on March 15-16, 2006. There was also a reception held in honor of Chowdhury at The Library of Congress, Member’s Reading Room, where Congressional Members, staff members and guests spoke with Chowdhury about giving meaning to the phrase “Made in America”.

 
Q: Share with us your success from the field of quality engineering to the field of management in premier business schools.
In 1997, Dr. Taguchi and Dave Power shaped my thinking and encouraged me to quit GM so that my voice could be heard on a global level by all types of organizations. I joined American Supplier Institute (ASI) a company that offers unique services through education, training, and application of Quality, Engineering, and Process Innovation. At ASI I started my consulting career. Within six years, I founded ASI Consulting Group, LLC (www.asiusa.com) a premium consulting organization in the field of process innovation and world leader on Design For Six Sigma. My consulting with senior leadership at various organizations at very early professional career motivated me to explore the field of management.

During the same time (1997), I was reading a book titled ‘Leader of the Future’ and encouraged by it to explore the field of pure management. Within a year, I became a Peter Drucker fan and doing hours of research in the field of management and reached out to the eminent thinkers around the globe to learn more about management. I was trying figure out the difference between Quality and Management. The business schools normally do not teach quality, but emphasize pure management. I knew that I was well respected in the field of quality, but in the field of management I was still unknown. One fine day, I woke up and I confided an idea with my wife who had management education. My idea was to design a book in which I will bring all the eminent management thinkers from top business schools to predict the future of management in the 21st century. I wanted to lead the project such that I may able to work with these thought leaders very closely to understand management better. So, I asked for her support. She mentioned that it was very tough, very challenging but achievable. In 1999, Management 21C was published. The book was a response to all those curious about how workplace institutions and management practices will change in these changing times.


Q: When you approached most management gurus to co-author with you, how did they react?
Well, a lot of people did not know me. It is natural for people to react differently when they do not know your name or work. “Who the hell are you?" was the first question from most. So, I have to work hard to convince each thought leader to focus on what I was bringing to the table rather concentrating on ‘me’. As days rolled in, they accepted me and supported the project wholeheartedly. Management 21C voted the Best Business Book of 1999 by amazon.co.uk.
 

"If you read only one management book this year, make it Management 21 C",
says John A. Quelch, dean, London Business School.


Q: An honorary doctorate for all your accomplishments, how did it feel?
Felt great, it meant even more to my dad. Dad wanted me to be a physician. In fact, I went to medical school for six months in 1985 before going to IIT. My father always wanted me to get the highest education as possible. So, after finishing my master’s degree, when I declined several PhD program scholarships dad was upset. To comfort my dad, in 1993 prior joining GM I told my dad that one day doctorate may be given to me for my works, I may not have to go to school to earn it. In 2004, Michigan Tech honored me with a honorary degree in Doctor of Engineering. The day I got the news, immediately called my dad and it made his day. What I truly believe in is: if you have the tenacity and the drive to succeed, the Ivy League status or PhD does not matter. Look at Dhirubhai Ambani – without any Ivy league degree or formal education what he achieved or my own alma mater IIT Kharagpur recently honored Rata Tata with honorary degree in Doctor of Engineering.


Q: Tell us your views on Asia’s rise, especially India and China. Any lessons for America?
For the past one decade, the political leadership in India and China are upbeat. Both nations are hungry for success, the way America was decades ago. In the business side, India and China definitely have a cost advantage, but they lack quality. The number one threat is the mushrooming of schools in engineering in both countries. Indians are producing good quality in the IT field but not in manufacturing or engineering. There is also a shortage of dedicated good quality faculty members. Another major threat is that ethics and values are deteriorating in India and china.

On the other hand, the American political leadership is in turmoil. The whole issue of work going to India and China has caused some discomfort to the Americans mind. What can I teach Americans? America is not the same as it was 40 or 50 years ago. The passion that jet-started the American dream is missing. Where is that passion? I don’t see employees being passionate about their jobs any more. The tenacity in people, the drive, and the passion is what I would like to see in the new generation of Americans. For all this to happen, the political leadership has to rise. I hope our next president will show the vision the way Kennedy did with moon landing mission.


Q: Corporate Organizations seem to be in a puddle. Why Human Resources?
The world of work and its definition is changing. It is only natural that we have a curiosity about how workplace institutions and management practices will change in these changing times. I firmly believe in integrating ROI (Return on Investment) with ROT (Return on Talent). If the organization takes care of its people, the people power will improve the processes that will in turn increase the productivity power. If you do not continuously check the talent of the people, no matter what process is created, it is bound to fail. I treat my employees with care. They are human beings. As my firm is in consulting, most consultants travel on business for 200 to 240 days across the globe. One day, I had one my employees walk in disturbed. I sent him home immediately to take care of his problem. An unhappy workforce will only result in mediocre products. ROI is directly correlated – recognize talent, keep the talent. There is too much focus on meeting the numbers. Jack Welch, former CEO of GE never missed a single number. His leadership style was purely based on ROT. Taking care of your people is the main reason how the ROI was automatically taken care of.


Q: Share your happiest moment from your writings.
One fine day I received a Fedex parcel from the Orlando Florida County Jail. Inside the package was a very nice binder. Within that was a very beautiful letter from the Jail Superintendent. He wrote that an AT&T manager who had volunteered his time at the jail to teach juvenile inmates about the power of quality. He developed some course material using my book The Ice Cream Maker to teach the inmates on how to improve their quality of life using the LEO principle (Listen, Enrich, and Optimize) introduced in the book. He described how the inmates were all very positive and congratulated me on this book that would be serving as their reference point. This gave me enormous joy as in my wildest dream I never imagined my book will shape the inmates for the better. I was instantly reminded about my grand father and only then realized why he wanted me to pick the pen more than the money. I must say that this and more similar incidents gave me 100 times more pleasure than winning a $10 million business contract. One other instance is a one page email from a woman from South Carolina who wanted to thank me for writing The Ice Cream Maker as she got her mother back after differences for over eight years. This shook me up completely. The Ice Cream Maker made her listen to her internal customer – her mom. This type of readers’ inputs give me a tremendous amount of satisfaction. School teachers applied the LEO principle to the school system, hospitals and big corporations are using it. If there were a1000 people whom I did not know, this book brought them closer to me… This was the power of The Ice Cream Maker. These are my recent happiest moments from my writings.


Q: What is your current project?
I am still contemplating to write a book on “Passion”. As said before, in America now a days Passion is missing; especially it is tougher to be passionate on this economic turmoil. So on this book, I want to teach common people the key ingredients to become passionate.


Q: Your passion and plans for the future?
I am very passionate about making the society better. I want to dedicate more time on my Foundation that is focused on helping the poorest children around the globe. Recently the Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation partnered with Volunteers of America to ‘adopt a family’ in southeastern Michigan. Last year on this program we helped 5 families during Christmas time; this year we will help 10 families. Hope one day the Foundation can impact a thousand families.


As Lester Bangs had rightfully said, “the only questions worth asking today are whether humans are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no”. Corporations and social organizations are in a constant flux deleting and adding human resources in the name of change failing to realize the productivity issues. The financial crisis the world is rooted in has only made things worse as companies struggle to make ends meet. What went wrong? How did the bubble burst? Are companies investing in the right resources? It is in conjunction with this thought that an opportunity to meet the Quality Guru of the world went unopposed and unchallenged.

Subir Chowdhury (41) lives with his wife Malini, seven year old daughter Anandi and one year old son Anish at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The Subir and Malini Chowdhury Foundation in the US makes annual contributions to the Mother Teresa Foundation located in Calcutta (West Bengal, India). Apart from that, the foundation adopts five to ten families in the Detroit region every year. All the Subir Chowdhury “print royalties” from China goes to the blind. You can read more about Subir Chowdhury at www.subirchowdhury.com.
 

If you have questions or feedback, please e-mail Anupama Gopalakrishnan.
This article is published solely for Miindia.com. Copyright 2008.

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