Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Jugaad Innovation: Stuck in a Local Optimum

Updated July 5, 2013:
CNN link on Jugaad Innovation.

The book cover blurb sounded exciting: Do more with less. An alternative to risky expenditure-driven, resource-hungry growth using a "bottom up approach to frugal and flexible innovation". Endorsement from a salesforce.com CEO. No doubt, Jugaad is a useful concept - it's a Hindi word that implies a improvised and clever work-around, but there is such a thing as stretching an idea too far. Jugaad arises from the Indian way of doing "more with less" - possibly a public response to artificial scarcity induced by genocidal British colonization since the late 18th century when a resource-rich India's share of world GDP plummeted from 25% to a negligible quantity in a short time to turn it into from a knowledge and manufacturing economy into an agrarian, impoverished nation. A scarcity-driven economy that has been nurtured by Nehruvian socialist politics over the last 60+ years. However, the word itself ties in nicely with ideas in Operations Research that deal with the optimal allocation and utilization of scarce resources, and hence this post.

The book has some heart-warming and splendid examples of Indian innovation, which are nice to read. The remarkably decentralized and entrepreneurial nature of the workforce, and their seeming comfort in operating effectively within what appears as "chaos" to the external observer is one of the salient features of the native Indian economy. A discussion of the Indian practice of the "missed call" (the closest that mankind has come to 'half a bit' of information) adds humor. The authors could have lent depth to the book by exploring the deep-rooted cultural origins of the decentralization, and entrepreneurial spirit that drives the Indian way of doing things. They do make some useful comparisons between the profligacy and rigidity of some Western CEOs with the adaptive nature of the "jugaad entrepreneur". However, celebrating every success from Bharti airtel to PepsiCo's direct seeding to Mitticool (now that is really cool) as a win for "Jugaad" dilutes the message. When the book hyped the crappy 'Aakash' tablet, the populist, Indian government's tax-payer subsidized tablet for the unwashed masses (a cheaper and cynically sub-optimal alternative to constructing and maintaining primary schools), it was time to cry halt. Celebrating artificial scarce resource allocation, however efficiently done, feels like a cop-out.

Operations Research practice is not just about optimizing within constraints and declaring victory. Value can be unlocked by using OR to expose the more expensive bottlenecks in the system. Constraints that turn out to be artifacts must be eliminated whenever possible. I'm all for (also) 'thinking small', but not at the expense of losing the context.

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