IT Leadership Opinion

COVID-19 PREPAREDNESS SERIES: We’re Learning and Enabling New Ways of Working: Rajesh Uppal, Maruti Suzuki

Like most other manufacturing organisations, India’s number one car maker Maruti Suzuki is also under a total lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Data shows the company sold 76,976 vehicles in March 2020, 47.4% less than 145,000 in March 2019. Export sales were down 55% to 4,712 units from 10,463 in 2019. As is, the auto sector was on a downward spiral for last many quarters and the COVID-19 lockdown has made it even more visible.

Usually manufacturing companies aren’t the most suitable bets for ‘work from home’ scenario due to the nature of work. Production shop-floors are the lifeblood of these companies. Maruti-Suzuki isn’t an exception. With its over 40,000 workforce across plants, sales, services, and other functions, the lockdown came as a surprise. “It came all of a sudden, leaving us with very little time to prepare and act,” says Rajesh Uppal, Senior Director IT & CHRO, Maruti Suzuki India. According to him, this small spell has left a great trail of learning:

  • Learning new ways of working
  • Enabling new ways of working

According to Rajesh, in less than a week, the role of IT has transformed completely. “When everybody stopped working, IT had to be in an overdrive mode. As a function, this was our time to prove the credibility earned over many years,” says Rajesh buoyantly.

While most of the time business continuity means uninterrupted high-availability of technology infrastructure and networks, the situation due to the lockdown made it different and peculiar. “Bigger issues appeared less challenging. The smaller components became larger. Our biggest worry was how to enable the desktop users to work from home? We had to enable both regular staffers and third-party vendors,” exclaims Rajesh.

That said, there was no option but to enable all those who matter. First task was to make the PCs/ Desktops available to the users and second was to have them access data safely. “We used the standard Microsoft ‘Remote Desktop’ for this. The beauty was that it starts with the same factory/office set-up, and runs apps from there, securely using proper data encryption tools. In a week’s time we were able to enable nearly 85% workers including the R&D and Design teams who use very bandwidth-hungry applications,” informs Rajesh.

There is no denying the fact that one can’t expect the same level of efficiency as working from office, but even if the efficiency is near the threshold, it is nothing less than exceptional for the testing times like these. “We are managing the entire infrastructure with less than 10 people on ground who are required to be at the primary datacenter site. These people live close to the DC location still we have made all necessary arrangements for their safety, stay, food, medication etc.,” says Uppal.

Another big change that Rajesh Uppal saw and wanted to highlight is about the sudden maturity and quick response from collaboration technology. “The already matured collaboration technology, from various tech companies, matured even more overnight. We realized how handy and portable it is in such situations,” says Uppal. The entire Maruti top management meets daily using video conferencing solution. Even the departmental and vertical meetings are no challenge.

There’s an unprecedented surge in the activities on the cybersecurity front in Maruti Suzuki. “While the data protection and privacy issues were always paramount, the activities of the CISO saw a steep hike due to approvals needed for every act we did. The number of advisories issued by our CISO in last one week are mind boggling,” he says.

Rajesh was quick in accepting that Human Resources in a manufacturing set up isn’t very well-versed with ‘work from home’ policies and that too for almost all employees for such a long duration. However, the HR department came quickly came up with the set of policies required. This was in tandem with the IT organisation. “On the statutory side, we not only processed the salaries in time but also kept up with most of the employee movements and grievances,” says Uppal.

Maruti Suzuki has taken this lockdown period as an opportunity for self-development and learning. The company has not only incentivised e-learning but has also given it a lot of weightage in the next round of appraisal. “It’s a great time to brush up your knowledge and enhance skills. We are using it to our advantage,” informs Uppal.

To manage the entire situation smoothly, a COVID-19 Response team has been constituted at Maruti Suzuki. This team consists of 5-6 key executives drawn from various key functions such as Legal, HR, IT, Admin and Engineering. This team oversees the day-to-day function of the entire company and is well in sync with the top management.



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