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The Japanese rose as a global manufacturing power out of their processes and techniques, not just technology. Some of their early principles were based upon simple but very powerful techniques to manage the manufacturing process and shop floor (factory) maintenance.

One of the most common Japanese principles is 5S – sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain. Of these principles, the most important is set in order and standardize. Sustenance follows automatically. These two principles, when they fall in place, necessarily institutionalize a protocol, a governance structure to execute.

In contrast, there are several issues of protocol and governance in India, which can be gleaned from the Utkal Express train accident that occurred on Saturday.

‘Unofficial maintenance’ is being blamed for the Utkal Express accident. This means that something was not ‘set in order’ before the exercise began. Else it would have been official maintenance. There are several reasons why the derailment could have ultimately taken place – a fish plate could have been loose; there could have been a cracking web rail that was not attended to; there could be local embrittlement; or, simply improper welding of rail sections could have been the cause.

Simply put, someone operating on a maintenance job did not close it accurately before leaving the situation and the lack of inspection left behind a snag that led to the accident – lack of standardization of procedures. It means that either the maintenance manual was not followed, or track inspection was not carried out as per standards, or the speed restrictions were not put in place, or the basic red flags were not put in place to slow down the speed of the train. Else the train would not have been traveling at a speed of 106 km/h at the time of the accident. This is where the second ‘S’ of the 5S principle comes in – standardization of procedures.

There are other procedural issues that cause haphazard work, the primary one being heavy congestion on the networks, leaving little time for maintenance. Most of the Category A networks are those with heavy traffic and therefore intense planning is devoted to carrying out the maintenance of these networks. Both the Jhansi-Kanpur section, where the Indore-Patna Express met with a fatal derailment in November 2016, and the Utkal Express are on Category B networks, for which maintenance is perhaps not planned as well, and not that systematically.

With the populism of the previous decade, the traffic volume on Category B networks has grown, though their traffic has not yet hit saturation levels. The systems have to be standardized across the network, be it Category A or Category B.

One critical factor, which directly relates to the cost of human resources for the Indian Railways, is the policy of ‘surrendering of posts’. Surrendering of posts means that you abolish a post completely, thereby preventing the size of the workforce from bloating up unnecessarily. The railways have, over a period of time, reduced their workforce from 16 lakh to 14 lakh.

According to an unstated policy, this has been partly achieved by creating new vacancies or filling up existing ones, only if a parallel quantity of posts is surrendered. This to some extent explains why, with increasing traffic density on various routes, a proportionate number of maintenance resources might not be deployed, as they may not have been employed in the first place.

Last year, the East Coast Railway had 15,000 vacancies. Of these 2,500 were vacancies for gangmen and trackmen who perform track maintenance and surveillance duties. Similarly, South Central Railway had 20,000 vacancies, of which 3,000 of them were for gangmen and trackmen positions.

Overall, last year, over a lakh posts in the Safety Category were vacant. The Centre’s policy on surrendering three percent of posts from existing vacancies could sometimes stretch maintenance resources too far. A judicious call needs to be taken on vacancies that need to be filled up with increasing traffic density and those that actually should wait for another post to be surrendered.

Maintenance needs to be planned well in advance, with operational checklists and standard operations procedures (SOPs) being watertight.

The traffic density may be high, but an ad-hoc schedule can be made for the traffic as well; like the Konkan Railways Monsoon schedule, so that adequate time can be devoted to maintenance activities, without compromising the time needed for a perfect maintenance job.

In fact, this could be a great opportunity for the Skill India mission to look inwards – at those that the government employs. Clearly, the gangmen and trackmen could go in for some skill enhancement, that blend their tools and tackles with basic concepts of shop floor maintenance, just as the Japanese do in their factories.

Not a single Japanese worker is untrained on how he could see a potential accident through visual inspection on a factory floor, and prevent it from happening. They have mastered not just quality, but also visual inspection and accident prevention, and all this at the lowest levels of employment in their enterprise. This could perhaps turn out to be the biggest Skill India mission – this time for the government employees and not for the citizens.

The author is Jai Mrug CEO of M76 Analytics, a SINE IIT Bombay Company.