Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Loo Architecture as if people mattered.....

Many years ago, in my working days at an Institute of National Importance,  there was a flurry of new constructions, and set ups, after years and years of making do with existing stuff.  Alumni remembered the Alma Mater, donated, the government too gave decent budget allocations, and our department got a new building , designed by a prize winning architect, who was featured on the cover of a professional journal .  

The most prominent feature of the new building was the open spaces inside , the great heights of ceilings, some kind of wide uncovered iron beams across classrooms way up,  a few labs without a single window , and a central staircase approachable from 2 sides (which made it interesting to chase people) , and the very roomy loos .

It needs to be understood that folks came to work from the far off suburbs by bus and train, be it  rain or shine, and often got completely drenched , quite normal for the Mumbai monsoon.  It helped to have a loo where there was a dry area for folks to change into dry  sarees and other outfits. .

A few months down the line, it became clear that the western style toilets were not exactly popular with the ladies, and since there was a provision for more than one toilet,  there was a move to petition the authorities to convert one to an Indian style toilet.

Such a simple request. But a letter was written, which went with all the signatures through the Head , to the Institute Estate Office that oversaw construction. Mind you, no one thought it necessary to consult the actual users of the building when the designs were being prepared and specifications of fixtures etc were being finalized. In something that always happens , things are approved at rarefied levels without involving the actual users and inviting their input.

One fine day, a committee of folks from the estate office, came by to inspect, various papers in hand.  Some of the ladies were called and listened to. Then nothing happened over a period of time.  Suddenly one day, some guys turned up and the loo was inaccessible to the ladies for a month or more, while all kinds of banging, scraping, hammering , drilling went on , incidentally , right next to a lab.

One fine day, the ladies got a loo of their choice.

I have never understood the concept where designing with western sensibilities is considered a step up in the world. I mean we were not a multinational. constantly entertaining and working with folks across the world,  but a simple request had to go through a Head, had examining committees, comments in writing by people  in authority, and so on, before the first demolition could happen.

From buying a system worth lakhs and crores, to a lowly bathroom modification, there were committees. No distinction between professional needs and personal needs.

Years before this , I worked for what was then the leading IT company in India. It is the same today too. Situated in the then iconic high rise Air India building , all the floors had identical patterns where office space and toilets were concerned, the latter consisting of an anteroom , and the actual toilet complex.

The place was centrally air conditioned, and one fine day , on entering the loo, one saw a pair of feet high up on a bunch of AC pipes that ran close to the ceiling and through it. The building was possibly getting AC maintenance done , but this was unacceptable. You couldn't have folks walking around at a height on pipes, in a ladies loo.  When our requests were ignored , we wrote to the then GM of our company, who later on was to become one of the most respected people in IT and was once called the Bhishma Maharshi Pitamaha of IT.

An hour after receiving the letter , he himself came with two HR people  to check out the situation, invited us to tell our problems, and a letter was sent off to the building management, protesting the whole thing, and asking them for better schedules and procedures of maintenance.  The next day onwards, people stopped walking on the pipes high up, and privacy was restored.

Perhaps , it was something that organization inculcated and learned from its founders. There are things where a solution is obvious, and there are situations which require deliberations .

Perhaps this story, illustrates something. (Story courtesy my friend Shanta Konaje)

Ratan Tata was holding a weekly meeting with Tata Steel staff at a football ground in Jamshedpur.

While watching the football match, to strike a conversation, a worker took up an issue.

He told Tata that the toilets for workers was terribly bad with leaking taps, clogged commodes and unbearable stink. No maintenance was being done for workers toilets, whereas the maintenance of officers toilet was very good, with air purifiers, dryers, hand towels, etc

Ratan Tata asked his top executive how much time he would need to set it right. He said 1 month. 

Ratan Tata said, " I would rather do it in half a day" and asked for a carpenter.

Next day the toilet sign board on workers toilet was changed to officers and officers to workers. There were instructions to change it back every fortnight.

Quality of both toilets became good.

Excellent example of Efficient Management  and Effective Execution.