Elevating the frontline: a customer success story
by Nick the Unbosser
We are currently connecting 11 changemakers from well-known organizations with companies around the world that combine successful business success with deep care for people and society. This is the Unbossers Network. As we are on this unique journey, we also document the stories of these extraordinary organizations. This is story number 1.
Some context first
Jaipur Rugs is an inspiring example of grassroots – bottom of the pyramid – business success: by serving the world’s poorest people, they found a way to make profit and build a winning business in today’s emerging market of India.
It all started in 1978 with one man who cared and 9 weavers who crafted beautiful rugs. Today Jaipur Rugs is the trendsetter of the hand-knotted carpet home textiles industry. They are the biggest producer of hand-knotted carpets in India. Their products are sold in 48 countries.
NKC in 1978
I spent a week in Jaipur, the capital of Radjastan, India with the founder and CEO of Jaipur Rugs, Nand Kishore Chaudhary (his official title on his office door is Director, University of Hard Knocks of Life) and his colleagues learning more about this unique company.
I visited every part of the organization and met with the weavers in the rural villages, the planners and dispatchers in the warehouse and the founder himself. NKC and I also co-hosted an online debate with our 11 changemakers.
In this blog I am sharing 7 lessons I will never forget.
1. Purpose is about our actions, much more than our words.
Jaipur Rugs has cut the middle-man, a bit like AirBnB, but even cooler. They connect the life of weavers directly with the life of customers. The entire organization is designed as a platform to elevate the weaver so that they can bless the customer.
It works like this:
The loom to weave the rugs is installed in the home of the weavers. Customers order a hand-knotted rug. Everything the weaver needs to create the ordered rug, the raw materials and the design map, is sent to their home. Just like HelloFresh sends the ingredients and the recipe to my home so that I can cook the meal.
The weavers are also empowered to be creative. They weave a story inspired by their rural life into the rug. Then the rug goes through 18 finishing steps to become the final product that is delivered to the customer. Finally, the customer enjoys the rug and walks on the story with their family.
Hence, the Jaipur Rugs tagline: Made with a family’s blessing.
Madhu - weaver in front of a loom
Jaipur Rugs may well be the most powerful example in the world of how purpose and craftsmanship can connect the poorest of the poor with the richest of the rich and transform tens of thousands of lives along the way.
They successfully combine the pursuit of profit with the spreading of kindness in a way that benefits all of the stakeholders: the consumers and their families, the artisans and their families, the employees, the suppliers, the buyers and channels they work with.
Walking around in the organization talking to people it’s striking how aligned they are. They’re all there for one thing: serving the weavers.
Funny side note: every minute people enter NKC’s office while we are having a meeting. I ask his translator if everything is ok. She explains it’s normal. There is an open door policy. Not by figure of speech like in many companies, but a real one. Everyone can walk into the CEO’s office and they literally do… every minute.
Later that day I challenged NKC on this, arguing it must be difficult to concentrate. He replies: “Nick, what else is there for me to do than to be there for people like I want them to be there for our weavers?”
It seems to work. No matter who I talk to, everyone radiates the purpose of the company. The importance of family, the weaver and the craft is reflected in every conversation I have with HR, supply chain, R&D and sales.
An interesting detail is that we are not staying in a hotel. There’s a guest house next to the HQ where visiting employees, project people, journalists, etc can stay. NK and his family live on the top floor. The guests stay downstairs. Two holy cows near the entrance bless the house. The vibe is open and warm. I feel immediately at home. Fresh organic meals are cooked every day. Visitors mingles with each other at the dinner table. This is one of many examples in which Jaipur Rugs is manifesting its purpose. They act it out in every single detail. The company is more than a business, it’s a family.
Dining room, Jaipur Rugs Guest House
“The Core Purpose of Jaipur Rugs is to nurture the creative capacity of our artisans and thereby empower them to fulfill their aspirations and live a dignified life.”
During the online debate, one of our changemakers asked NKC how Jaipur Rugs formulated and implemented their purpose so successfully, probably expecting a method or an approach. But NKC shared that for 35 years they were just doing what they were doing without even knowing what a purpose or values are.
It’s only when senior partners of Bain & Company visited Jaipur Rugs that they told them that they were one of the most purpose-driven organizations they’ve ever seen. It’s Bain & Company who wrote their observations down in a purpose statement document.
Act first, formulate later. That’s the key lesson here. It really made me question the added value of the purpose, values and similar workshops that so many corporates organise and even more business consultants try to sell. It seems to me that companies who are really purpose-driven don’t feel the need to talk about it. They just do it.
2. Artisans and customers are two sides of the same coin.
“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
A conviction rooted in the foundations of Jaipur Rugs.
3 weavers at a loom
As a business, the role of Jaipur Rugs is to connect the artisan and the customer. They don’t believe in a naive one-sided policy of customer first. They always treat the artisans and customers equally. Both artisans and customers come before everything else.
The looms are set up in the house of the weavers in the rural villages. 40.000 weavers across India are connected to the Jaipur Rugs platform.
Weavers work when they want. On average 5 hours a day. They are paid per line they weave. This way they can manage their work, household and income themselves.
Primdevi, weavers friend
Primdevi stopped going to school when she was 12 years young. She’s been weaving ever since. Yet today she’s a ‘weavers friend’, which is a coordinator role for 43 looms and 80 some weavers.
With the support of Jaipur Rugs she learned to support other weavers, coordinate the progress of the rugs, validate the quality and track everything in an app. It’s not like this happend overnight. Initially, Primdevi didn’t want the job. She was scared. It’s thanks to her support system, her family and Jaipur Rugs, coming together that she gained the trust to get out of her comfort zone.
It made me wonder. What is the support system we offer in our organizations to anyone in the company who takes on a new, challenging role? In corporate management we talk a lot about empowering the frontline, but few really succeed. Jaipur Rugs showed me how empowerment is really done.
Jaipur Rugs is structured like a platform that offers their frontline, the artisans, the opportunity to become artists without leaving their homes (because they have to take care of the household.) For instance, instead of giving the weavers a detailed design map of the rug a customer wants, the weavers in the Manchaha project get the freedom to create whatever they want.
Initially, the weavers, just like Primdevi, didn’t know what to do with this freedom. A pattern I observe in many organizations experimenting with ‘self-management’ as well.
They were worried about spoiling resources. They were uptight. This leads traditional managers to the mistaken conclusion that their people do not have the maturity nor capabilities for self-management, and so they take back control. Not so at Jaipur Rugs.
The coordinators persisted. They refused to give any additional details to the weavers. Finally, two weavers started experimenting. And they inspired others to follow. Then the first batch of rugs out of the project was not sellable. Again, in many organizations a failed experiment like this would mean the end of the projects. Not at Jaipur Rugs. For them it was proof that weavers could do it themselves. So they continued.
They started giving the weavers art training and other workshops to help them maximize the potential of their new freedom. Today, the Manchaha carpets win design awards all over the world. Now that’s what I call “empowerment”.
3. Three simple KPI’s track customer success and keep people going, despite big challenges.
Apart from creating beautiful rugs, Jaipur Rugs set three parameters of customer success: zero defect, zero waste and on time.
They make sure that they equip artisans, the warehouse people and their logistics with the skills to achieve this, at the same time keeping them excited & inspired.
- 88% of their deliveries are on time.
- 1 out of thousands of carpets a month has a defect.
- Excess raw material is sent back to the warehouse and repackaged for a new order.
What these people show me, is that achieving a goal is never about resources, and always about resourcefulness: the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties.
The can-do mindset at Jaipur Rugs humbles and inspires me. Take the warehouse for example. Many employees don’t even know how to read, the planners and dispatchers work on old computers, the road infrastructure is messy and chaotic. Yet, still they find ways to deliver the rugs on time, with zero defects and make customers happy at a global scale.
The design maps for the customer orders of this month
4. From ‘us versus them’ to ‘we’: expose people to the impact of their work.
Our corporate organizations suffer from siloed thinking. We tend to push away responsibility and blame it on ‘them’, being another team or department. But a family like Jaipur Rugs takes care of their own. When one is in trouble, the other one comes to the rescue.
That’s why Jaipur Rugs invests a lot of time and effort in exposing every employee to the entire carpet making process (over 80 processes). This helps everyone understand the impact of their work on their colleagues down the line as well as the final product. It has brought a massive shift in their mindset and embedded end-to-end process thinking.
18 final steps to finish a woven rug
Exposing people to the impact of their work and creating a ‘we’ mindset is not just an HR project nor the responsibility of one team. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Every team at Jaipur Rugs contributes to the awareness in the system that everything and everybody is connected.
HR organizes sensing journeys to connect newcomers with the Jaipur Rugs business model and the heart of the weavers. They also visit villages and organize regular cross team feedback sessions.
The R&D team has to innovate within the constraints of the real world of the weavers in far away villages. They see Jaipur Rugs as a platform for weavers to become artists, not just labor. “We see ourselves as art revivalists, we’re not just saving, but scaling the ancient art of rug making.” Devendra Kumar, the head of R&D, and award winning designer Soman, tell me with sparkles in their eyes.
Award winning designer Soman in front of rug washing tools
The sales team connects the final customer with the weaver. They have to train the customer in the weather sensitive processes of a hand-knotted carpet and its impact on delivery dates. For this they have, for example, created an app to send customers pictures of their carpet while it is still in the making.
5. The innocent leader never stops learning.
NKC’s leadership style in one word? Innocent. He looks at the world like a 5-year old. He knows nothing and wants to learn everything. It’s contagious. I rediscover my inner child after a few days in his presence.
He also firmly believes that the solution to every problem starts by going inward. According to him, the most important role of a leader is to be an observer. This starts with observing himself. He uses challenging situations in the organization to learn more about who he is.
During the online debate one changemaker, who’s trying to transform his department, asks advice on how to manage resistance both from his top management and his teams.
Here’s how NKC looks to resistance to change: “Life is not a mess we can fix, nor is it a puzzle we can solve. Life is a mystery that can only be lived. So love the resistance like an innocent child loves its parents. In this imperfection lies the beauty of life. It’s the longing for no resistance at all, the striving for perfection, that is the insanity.”
There must be some value in these words because I observed a sense of calm and relief embracing our debate. The changemaker wanted to know more. He followed-up with another question: “Yes, but how do I learn to love the resistance?”
NKC continued (I’m paraphrasing): “This is not something to understand with the mind. You do it with your heart. Your fear of resistance is a form of low self-esteem. Your mind has overcome your heart. Someone with low self-esteem, feels lonely. Someone who feels lonely, misses love. Someone who lacks love compensates by proving he is worthy of love. But no matter how much one compensates, no matter how much one adjusts to resistances, one will never find enough love outside oneself, but only within oneself. Know yourself, know your heart and the fear of resistance will disappear. When your fear of resistance is gone, you will know what to do.”
While I’m writing this I understand this can come across as a bit guru-like for the average reader, but actually NKC makes it very practical. He explained with personal examples how he had to learn and still is learning these wise lessons. After the session, he showed me for example tens of pages of handwritten self reflections about situations in which his fear took the best of him. The man is 69 years old, but still considers himself an innocent child observing and learning life’s journey.
NKC & Nick in the Jaipur Rugs, HQ.
What’s more is that NKC’s innocent and inside-out leadership style is omnipresent in the organization. In many conversations with employees you see and hear NKC’s leadership in action. The story of Branch Manager Harpool is a warm example. He coordinates the flow between the warehouse, the weavers and production for a specific region in India.
He started working for Jaipur Rugs 17 years ago. When founder NKC visited his village, where he was living and weaving, he initially thought he was coming to kidnap him. Why else would an important business man visit his poor village?
17 years later Harpool is supervising 2.000 weavers in 200 villages. In the twenty minutes we spend together he mainly talks about the fast growth of his career and how it introduced ego into his system. “I started with nothing and suddenly I’m a brand manager. I thought I was the man when really my ego was hindering everything. NK noticed this immediately and helped me overcome my ego, he continues, I consider it to be my biggest achievement so far.
I find this a fascinating way of looking at the journey of business success. It reminds me of the many leaders in Europe who have reached the pinnacle of business success with all its merits, yet feel empty inside. Perhaps Harpool’s story can teach them something.
Harpool supervises 2.000 weavers
6. The work is not done, the healing is just getting started.
Many organizations see their transformation as a project with a destination and a deadline. Not surprisingly, many global business leaders are reaching out to NKC. They see Jaipur Rugs as an organization that has reached its destination, and they want to know how it did it.
Listening to employees, weavers and consumers alike, I can confirm that Jaipur Rugs has indeed achieved something special. They are truly a healing organization. By connecting the poorest of the poor with the richest of the rich, their story-driven rugs transcend social classes and bless our society.
What I’ve learned from NKC is that there is no destination, nor deadline. There is simply the never ending journey of life. Despite all of the successes, for him the story of Jaipur Rugs is only getting started. The work is far from done. The grassroots are not fully independent yet. And every area of the Jaipur Rugs business needs to step up without falling into the traps of traditional management.
7. Is craftmanship the answer to employee engagement?
Lastly, this visit made me reflect deeply on craftsmanship and how powerful it is. When we think of crafts, we think of artisanal handicrafts like rug making, pottery bakers, shoemakers or crochet.
But the pattern across all of the people I’ve met this week is (1) deep concentration, (2) endless refinement of a skill and (3) taking the time to create something with love and passion. The outcome is also always the same: fulfilled people and beautiful products.
Blockprinter from Anoki, Jaipur
I believe this combination of mindset and skill can be applied to every job and task. You could inject craftsmanship into the way a developer writes code, an assistant puzzles together the optimal agenda, a facilitator organizes the ideal meeting or the salesman crafting the perfect pitch.
Maybe the answer to employee engagement, and even the future of work, lies in the revival of this sense of craftsmanship which we kind of lost in the age of industrialization and bureaucracy.
What if the organization of the future is an organization that heals every professional by providing them with the perfect context to find this sense of craftsmanship in their job?
Because whatever the job, one day, if not already, a machine will be able to do it too, but machines could never add our human essence into it. That is our biggest unique selling proposition and we should not let it go to waste.
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