January 2008 | Sujata Agrawal

A passion for cars

Girish Wagh has contributed to the launch of the Indica, the launch of the Ace truck, and most recently, the launch of the Nano. In this interview, Mr Wagh shares some thoughts on his journey of learning with Tata Motors

Girish Wagh of Tata Motors has led a very interesting work life – he has contributed to the launch of the Indica, the launch of the Ace truck, and most recently, the launch of the Nano. On January 10, when the Nano as unveiled at the Auto Expo 2008, he shared the stage with Ratan Tata and Ravi Kant as the head of the small car project.

Girish Wagh

A mechanical engineer from the Maharashtra Institute of Technology, Wagh did a post-graduate programme in manufacturing from SP Jain Institute of Management and Research before joining Tata Motors in 1992 straight from the campus. Today, this 37-year-old is the leader of a 500-strong team of engineers that has worked for years to bring Mr Tata’s dream to fruition.

In this interview with Sujata Agrawal, Mr Wagh shares some thoughts on his journey of learning with Tata Motors.

Tell us how you came to be involved with the Nano project.
I was fortunate to be selected for Tata Motors’ executive selection scheme (ESS) programme in 1998. I was with the business excellence team, assessing Tata Steel as part of the Tata Business Excellence Model (TBEM) process, when Mr Kant asked me to work on the ACE project. When the ACE was launched in May 2005, I was offered the exciting opportunity to head the Nano project.

Have you always been an automobile enthusiast?
Frankly I am not an automobile enthusiast. I define an automobile enthusiast as someone who can identify any car, is familiar with their specs and knows a lot about automobile engineering, like my colleagues Jai Bolar and Nikhil Advani. I am not like that. But yes, I am passionate about cars; I know a lot about cars and what is happening in the industry. In the Nano team, we had a good balance between automobile enthusiasts and people who are passionate about cars.

What has been your greatest learning experience from the Nano project?
My work experience in Tata Motors has been fairly varied and there have been learnings at every stage. I started working with trucks and then transitioned from manufacturing to vendor development. That was my first exposure to product design. Then as part of the ESS programme, I moved to business excellence, which was about managing the business.

As head of the ACE project, my learning curve shot up sharply. One of the biggest benefits of being a project manager is that you get involved in all aspects of the project; you can ask any question and therefore learn more. I learnt a lot in terms of how a product is designed.

The learnings on the Nano project were different from the ACE learnings in two aspects. The first was that the enormity of the challenge was far higher. The second was that we were developing a car and not a truck. In a truck, the focus is on the overloading capability, avoiding aggregate failures and fuel efficiency. In a car, the focus is on the refinements, the fits and the finish. Fuel efficiency in a car is a kind of order qualifier – if you don’t have that, its difficult to get market share – but to be a winner you have to focus on fits, finish and refinement.

The canvas was also wider in the Nano – I had more intensive discussions with government agencies and external stakeholders.

The Nano has showcased the teamwork at Tata Motors. What were the main challenges in getting your team to share a singular vision and to realise it?
The Nano has received more coverage because it was seen as an impossible project; but there have been many instances of tremendous teamwork in the company. For instance, the Indica project — it was a very tough challenge in those days; we were entering the passenger car market and wanted to make a car which was as big as an Ambassador but in the price range of a Maruti 800. The organisation worked very well as a team and made it happen.

Another example was the time when Tata Motors had a Rs500 crore loss and the way we bounced back. It was the biggest loss in the corporate history of the country, and the turnaround in two years (from
-500 to +500) was also the fastest turnaround in India’s corporate history. Mr Kant created a powerful and cohesive team in commercial vehicles which came out with new products, improved the quality of existing products, became more customer focused and strengthened our leadership position. The ACE’s success was also built on teamwork.

Coming to the Nano. There were two key factors that helped weld the Nano team together — the first was Mr Tata’s leadership and the second was a very very challenging goal.

Mr Tata’s involvement with the project, his constant encouragement and support and his presence at the Pune plant were what made it all happen. He led by example. His interactions were not only with senior managers; he discussed things and asked for suggestions from everyone. And this attitude percolated to all team members. Egos didn’t exist in the Nano team; what actually hampers team work is ego, whether personal or departmental.

Going ahead, we have even more challenges on the Nano and this same team and its teamwork will make it happen.

You have said that ‘in such a project there are more failures than successes’. Did you ever, during the course of the project, think that you may fail or that Tata Motors may have to settle for a ‘lesser’ car?
Let me answer this in two parts. First the second part: We were very clear that we never wanted to make anything that was a compromise of a car. We never took any decisions that would result in a ‘lesser’ car. Our focus was always on ‘what is the best that we can give the customer’.

Tata Nano

I believe this thinking helps in the long term. Going for something at a lower level may reduce the cost for that moment, but in the long-term it may be detrimental. For instance suppose you remove a particular feature and save Rs300. But by not having that feature you lose, say, 10 per cent of customers. In a volume of 5 lakh, 10 per cent means 50,000 customers!

Today the Nano has become a big brand. But the bigger challenge now is how to sustain the demand. The product has to be very good and consistent.

Now to answer the first question — while there was always the pressure of meeting targets, we never thought that we would fail. And this was because of the way the project was guided by Mr Tata and Mr Kant. They created an open environment in which people never had a fear of failure. It gave team members a chance to use their creativity to a maximum.

And the team responded magnificently. When a designer has to work out ten alternate designs, and after a particular design has been selected, keep on refining it for lower cost, better quality, it can certainly lead to intellectual fatigue. But the freedom and encouraging environment ensured that people kept working at their best. In the later stages, this became a momentum and a way of living; people got accustomed to it and pushed themselves even further.

Is there anything at all that, given a chance, you would change about the Nano?
Actually just the other day we were looking at the evolution of how the Nano looked at first and how it looks today. From that perspective I think the way it looks today is the best. So I wouldn’t like to change the styling.

But on the product side I would like to improve upon many things, such as fuel efficiency and the refinement. And of course it goes without saying that we would also like to lower the cost.

And there is something else that we as a team would like to change, not just for the Nano, but for all cars from Tata Motors. There is a perception that Tata cars, when launched, will have a lot of problems with quality and reliability. I am hoping that all of us will make a significant improvement on this front. This will not only help the Nano, it will also build confidence in the company.

The Nano has been a significant achievement: what next for Girish Wagh? And for Tata Motors?
We have many plans at Tata Motors; what you’ve seen is only the tip of the iceberg. There are two main things — the first is that we are going to expand on variants, and the second is that we have to expand capacity, not only within India but also abroad. The challenge lies in the execution of these plans. It’s almost three times tougher — both on the product development front as well as on execution in terms of creating markets, demand and manufacturing capacity.

At Tata Motors, we want to become a significant player in the passenger car market. When the Indica was made, we entered the passenger car market and the country and the world took notice of Tata Motors. Now we are into the second generation of Indica and utility vehicle models. With the Nano we are entering a new segment or more likely, creating a new segment. So I think the challenge is to create new segments and generate more demand so that we become a significant player in the passenger car market.

With regard to commercial vehicles, we would like to maintain the lead. There is a lot happening in that segment. We are developing the second generation of all products — the pick-up has already been launched and we are working on the world truck and the world LCV. The complete commercial vehicle range will get replaced with new generation vehicles.

Cars that are more environment friendly and ‘greener’ than anything available today — is that where the global auto industry is headed? Will Tata Motors be able to develop the capabilities needed to join this race?
Yes, I think it is more of a necessity. And that’s why the Nano will be the first car in India with CO2 emissions less then 120gm/km.

As a company we have already started working on this front. We are taking a lot of advance engineering projects so as to develop capabilities that can be applicable across platforms. Tata Motors has always been ahead of the regulations; we would like to continue to maintain that leadership.

And finally, what make of car do you drive, and do you have a favourite car?
Currently I drive an Indigo Marina. I can say it’s my favourite car because I like it. It’s a ‘lifestyle’ car, very good for handling, very good on acceleration and the engine is very good.