Redoing American Innovation, Indian Style

Mansukh Prajapati was never much of a student. His father, struggling to make ends meet as a potter in the northeastern state of Gujarat, India, sent Prajapati to school hoping some rigorous academics would pave the way to a better life. But Prajapati failed in the classroom and returned home to take up the family trade.

Prajapati worked odd jobs as a potter and clay baker until in 2001 an earthquake devastated his village. The quake destroyed homes and took out the electricity, leaving villagers unable to preserve food.

Inspired by urgent need, Prajapati set about designing a robust earthen fridge that uses water instead of electricity to cool food. Prajapati sold his fridge to a few villagers and demand grew quickly. He taught the women of his village how to build the fridge and opened a factory.

Soon, Prajapati’s business took off internationally, and a few years later Forbes named him one of the most influential entrepreneurs of rural India.

Prajapati is a prime example of “Jugaad” innovation—solving problems with limited resources, especially in the wake of a crisis or challenge—and he’s part of a larger trend shaking up industries across the West.

Jugaad—a Hindi term used in everyday Indian life to describe on-the-fly MacGyver-style fixes—is common in developing economies, says Navi Radjou, co-author of the bestselling book Jugaad Innovation, Think Frugal, Be Flexible, Generate Breakthrough Growth, which tells the story of Mansukh Prajapati.

Radjou, an innovation and leadership consultant based out of Silicon Valley, works with the likes of GM, Hitachi, IBM, and Procter & Gamble, and he’s noticing that industry leaders in the West are looking to emerging economies, not only as potential markets, but also as learning centers for how to develop more innovative products.

“Emerging markets like Africa, India and China may not have big R&D programs and infrastructure, but they are very in tune with the market need,” Radjou says. “They use that insight to come up with a good-enough solution – no bells and whistles, but it addresses all the fundamental needs of local customers.”

The writing is on the wall, according to Booz & Company, in 2010 alone, the world’s largest corporations—many of which are American firms—spent more than half a trillion dollars in R&D and yet still struggle to churn out innovative products.

Coming up with solutions to meet today’s dynamic and rapidly changing market needs requires a combination of flexibility, nimbleness and courage that Western industry often lacks.

“In the West we tend to have a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, but Jugaad is about having the self-confidence to come up with a single plan when it’s required,” Radjou says.

Nowhere is the Jugaad approach more relevant and well-suited than in today’s volatile and fast-paced automotive industry, and Ford and Renault-Nissan, Radjou says, are leading the charge.

Last week Renault-Nissan Alliance announced record sales of 8.3 million vehicles in 2013, putting it behind top three automakers Toyota, General Motors and Volkswagen.

Renault-Nissan produces a value-for-money product that cost-conscious customers in both emerging and developed economies can appreciate. Its combination of frugal design, low-cost manufacturing, and a large pool of engineering talent has proved a winning formula.

The Logan van and pickup, along with the similar Dacia Duster SUV, are now Renault’s cash cows. Renault began production of the Logan in Romania. The vehicle had 50 percent fewer parts than a typical Renault and a much simpler architecture.

Engineers designed symmetrical rear-view mirrors that can be used on either side of the car. A flatter-than-usual windshield cut down on cost, and the dashboard was produced out of a single injection-molded piece. Engineers also limited the number of electronic components, making the car easier and cheaper to produce and repair. The vehicle is over 90 percent recyclable.

After the success of the Logan, Renault-Nissan has moved into India, setting up facilities in Chennai and Mumbai. It’s designed a whole range of ultra-low-cost vehicles from scratch, targeted at first-time buyers in India, Latin America, Africa, and perhaps in time Eastern Europe and beyond.

It’s a win-win for Renault-Nissan. India has the lowest car penetration among emerging economies, so there’s a ready market. But just as in Romania, the car company benefits from the Jugaad mindset of Indian engineering teams.

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn recently challenged his French, Japanese and Indian engineering teams to come up with a solution to the same technical problem, Radjou says. The Indian solution cost one-fifth of the French and Japanese solutions.

Through its partnership with TechShop, Ford is tapping into the Jugaad vibe in a slightly different way. TechShop provides communal workspace, tools and classes for inventors and tinkerers across the country. In 2010 Ford partnered with TechShop as a way to reach out to the community and crowdsource ideas. But Ford also sponsors its own engineers to attend TechShop, and this, says Radjou is a clever way to encourage fearless innovation in your own employees.

“Every engineer has a MacGyver inside of him waiting to be unleashed,” Radjou says. “Ford employees are able to go and play at TechShop in a very free environment. When they get out of the structured workplace they become creative.”

So creative in fact that since its partnership with TechShop, Ford has increased its patent output by 50 percent while also reducing R&D spending, according to TechShop CEO Mark Hatch.

“Google is known for providing its employees time to innovate. But time is not enough, you need to create space too,” Radjou says. “Ford has done a better job than Google because TechShop engineers mix with new people and find fresh way of thinking about a problem.”

Offering the TechShop experience allows Ford employees to leave the highly structured and process-oriented workplace environment for a while, to think outside of the box and then bring fresh ideas back to the table. Radjou calls this a “shadow track” – a way for engineers to step away from the formal design and development process, play around, and then step back in with new solutions.

“TechShop and places like it are where we’ll find the innovators of the future. Gen Z is not interested in sitting in a classroom and learning about STEM,” Radjou says.

“We need to attract young people back into the industrial sector and we need a new breed of innovator, someone who is highly skilled – a tinkerer. There’s innovation led by thinkers—PhDs and scientists—and then there’s innovation led by tinkerers. They go hand-in-hand, but for too long innovation has been dominated by the former,” Radjou concludes.

Mansukh Prajapati might agree with that sentiment. He joins a growing list of Jugaad innovators coming out of rural India. The Honeybee Network, which supports grassroots innovations in India and is part of the National Innovation Foundation, has compiled a database of 10,000 inventions pioneered by rural entrepreneurs like Prajapati.

While “scaling up” is a stumbling block for many of these entrepreneurs, Western interests are beginning to pay attention.

Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP/GettyImages

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One thought on “Redoing American Innovation, Indian Style”

  1. lyntwo says:

    American products once were renowned for being ruggedly built, simple to maintain, built for use by idiots, and marketed by pitchmen.

    When the United States’ back was up against the wall upon entry in the Second World War, resources and access to production were rationed. Designs were revisited again and again to be made simpler and less consuming of material and production capacity. A huge education by experience and social exposure occurred because of this war production, the inventive make do spirit of the pioneers met with the industrial capacity of the United States and the financial resources of the Federal Government and collateral of the British Empire to produce the world’s largest research and manufacturing economy which consequently improved the lives of hundreds of millions of human beings.

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