Holidays are a reading time. And in my reading list there was this book called “Against all Odds – The IT Story of India”. It is a fabulous book about the growth of IT Services in India. I have been in this industry for a while now and even for me a lot of what was written in the book was an eye opener.
In it there was the story of India’s first large scale digital transformation project. The word “digital transformation” as we know it today was coined decades earlier however it started to catch the attention in the last couple of decades and in some industries even more recently because of the disruption caused by Covid-19.
The Passenger Reservation System (PRS) project which was implemented in the mid-1980s is one of India’s most visible and successful digital transformation exercise. Though the project took place three decades ago there are some lessons that are relevant even for today. The five Key learnings from this project are as follows:
- One Size does not fit all: Every organization is unique with it’s set of people, process, data and systems and it is important to understand that landscape before deciding on how to solve the problem. The problem may look similar and other players in the industry may have already have a solution but if we just pick those and directly apply the chances of a good solution is hard. Before the PRS project was initiated the team decided to do just that and spent some time in understanding what is there in the industry and how can it be applied to the Indian context. It went on a study tour evaluating five railway systems around the world – France, UK, Germany, US, and Canada. During this tour however the study team realised that the Indian Railways context was unique – given its size, complexity, and transaction volumes. The team concluded that a buy option may not be suitable for them and decided to build an indigenous PRS system.
- The Importance of Discovery Process: Fifteen personnel each from IR (Indian Railways) and the vendor who was CMC (Computer Management Corporation), spent the next 15 months after their tour finalizing the specifications of the system before they undertook the pilot. Experts say that such elaborate preparation was very crucial to the success of the project. True that the scale of this project was enormous but the fact that a robust discovery phase is important to the success of a project applies to all projects – irrespective of the size and scale. Very often businesses make the mistake of jumping directly into a technical solution without spending adequate time in discovery and this results in poor implementation and lower ROI for the projects. The sufficiently long time of fifteen months for the PRS Project, allocated to discovery and scope allowed for several refinements of the requirement document and resulted in a pilot that did not require much reworking.
- Importance of Developing MVP or prototype: Rather than tackling the whole problem at once, the team decided to break it down into small manageable chunks. It developed a prototype with a single train and spent time in collecting feedback on its prototype from that station. MVP is about building the end-to-end solution for one entity in the problem – the front end and the back end combined with user experience so that you can see the solution in action for a subset of the overall. E.g. if you are building a data warehouse/ data lake to get all your siloed data into one place, it is better to work with one or two systems, get the data in and mock up and validate the whole process of bringing the data in and how the data will be used for decision making rather than working with all the systems at the same time.
- Strong Project Management to Avoid Rework and Mitigate the Risk: From a project management perspective, the team built sufficient redundancies into their plan to de-risk the implementation. The long discovery process allowed them to understand the context of the problem and the requirements in depth which prevented rework later when the MVP and solution was implemented. In another instance they had a parallel run for fifteen days between reservations made through the system which were compared to the manual reservations. It was a great example of the philosophy of “de-risking”.
- Managing the People side: From a human capital perspective, IR assured its labour unions that the PRS project would not lead to any retrenchment. They used example to drive home this point. Taking Japan as an example where between 1979 and 1984 about 10,000 robots were used in the Japanese automobile industry. It replaced 7000 workers but created 60000 new job opportunities requiring higher order skills that were created in the industry.
Rather than creating the entire PRS as a single large networked application connecting all systems in India and costing Rs 100 crore – the IR management conceived it as an application covering just New Delhi and costing Rs 10 crore first. Indian Railways in 1984 handled over 5 million passengers who travelled on over 600 long distance trains with around 50000 reservation requests. Despite being such a mammoth endeavour, the project was an outstanding success – the mean waiting time reduced three-fold to 24 minutes and led to an estimated saving of Rs 10 crore to the economy.
DefineRight has used the experience of its founders and advisors that have worked on several small and large projects to create a discovery focussed delivery methodology. We understand the problem nuances and then look at the underlying dimensions of the problem keeping in mind the specific sub-factors with respect to data, people, technology, and systems in that business function. Though the problem may look similar the recommended solution is still customised to blend into that function’s ecosystem.