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Meeting Project Objectives Differently
By Arvind Kumar
After having worked for over 22 years in Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. (IOCL) and handled projects of a varied nature, I believed that I had experienced all that a project manager would in his or her lifetime. But during a visit to a vendor’s site in last December, I realized that there is no end to learning. The factory was managed entirely by visually impaired workers, and it was an amazing experience to see them apply basic project management principles to achieve excellence at work.

IOCL had placed an order for boiler components with Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) in Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu for our Paradip Refinery Project in Orissa. BHEL had outsourced the manufacturing of certain parts of the boiler, such as pins and clamps, to the Organisation for Rehabilitation of the Blind (ORBIT) in Trichy. A visit to the ORBIT factory Mr. Arvind Kumar, chief project manager, Paradip Refinery Project, Indian Oil Corporation Ltd., New Delhi, on how visually impaired workers prove that barriers to human possibilities exist only in the mind was interesting for me as a project management professional. I believe ORBIT sets an example for others in industrial pursuit to follow.

Mr. Arvind Kumar with ORBIT workers at the plant.
Mr. P.R. Pandi, president, ORBIT, who took me around the factory, is visually impaired like the rest of the employees. Though I was aware of special schools and institutions for the visually impaired, this was my first experience of a manufacturing facility being run completely by visually impaired people. Inside the ORBIT factory, workers went about their work in a well-coordinated and coherent manner. There were groups of workers segregating the raw material; feeding the raw material on cutting, shearing, and punching machines; collecting the final products; and packing them after quality checks. The entire manufacturing process was efficiently carried out, and the finished products met our quality standards.

Technical project management involves combining technical skills with a human touch. To meet project goals under difficult situations and with special constraints that may compromise performance, we need a strong motivated team of individuals. What I saw at ORBIT was a demonstration of that. Mr. Pandi, who took frequent rounds of the workshop to monitor progress and boost the morale of the workers, assumed the role of a "One Minute Manager" as professed by Mr. Kenneth Blanchard and Mr. Spencer Johnson. In their bestselling management book, The One Minute Manager, the writers laid emphasis on using one-minute goals, praises, and reprimands to bring out lasting benefits.

Visually impaired workers display
team spirit and coordination at work.
The interpersonal understanding and collective effort of these workers were exemplary and far better than what I have generally seen in workers on shop floors. Visual impairment did not seem to affect communication as they went about their work in perfect coordination with a calm mind and a steady hand.

A principle that worked at ORBIT is delegation with empowerment. Team leaders were empowered to take most of the operating decisions. They were also expected to resolve challenges by taking each other’s help. Interpersonal conflict and other behavioral problems were resolved with clarity of roles and an emphasis on team building. Workers were also encouraged to apply the principles of Total Productive Maintenance to enhance productivity.

For me, an enduring image of the factory is that of a worker running across the shop floor as if he could see what was ahead of him. The worker, who was assisting a welder, ran to the storeroom to fetch electrodes for the job. Later I learned that each worker had memorized the layout of the shop floor well and moved from one point to the other by counting steps. Such levels of coordination in a team come with sustained effort. At ORBIT, each worker gets extensive training for several months until he gains confidence to work on the machines.

I returned from ORBIT with the firm conviction that with such effort and passion going in for the Paradip Refinery Project, IOCL’s dream project will soon be a reality. No textbook can teach us how to imbibe the indomitable spirit that these workers have displayed when faced with such challenges imposed on them by nature. But then that is the very spirit of project management. Learn from the experiences of others and make learning a continuous process through our lives. Poet H.W. Longfellow said it aptly in his poem “A Psalm of Life.”

“Not enjoyment and not sorrow,
Is our destined end or way;
But to act, that each tomorrow
Find us farther than today.

Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.”

(Mr. Arvind Kumar has worked for different refinery units at IOCL in design and engineering and in project management. He has successfully executed and commissioned various greenfield and revamp projects of oil refineries.)

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