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Dont underestimate the power of small-town women!

Kirloskar Brothers’ all-woman facility near Coimbatore does big wonders, writes veteran business journalist Sekhar Seshan

She was the first woman in her family to become a graduate. U. Lakshmi’s father had studied up to the 10th standard and her mother till only the third. “They were very supportive in my studies, though my five aunts were all against,” she recalls. “There was a big fight when I decided to stay in a government hostel at Karaikudi, 500 km away from home at Thiruvallur in Tamil Nadu, because I had joined the engineering college there. But my father and I won!”

Lakshmi graduated in mechanical engineering and joined Caterpillar India’s building construction products division, which was based in Thiruvallur. The first woman engineer on the shop floor, she had a tough time in the beginning. Facing bullying and outright threats from the men on the shopfloor, she used to go to the rest room and cry. But she didn’t give up – and won there, too, with a combination of what she calls sama, bheda, danda (reasoning, diplomacy and punishment).

After 17 years there, Lakshmi moved companies and location – to Cummins in Pithampur, near Indore. She had to learn Hindi and passed the examinations up to Level 6. On to Schneider in Chennai, where she managed 2,000 employees in a plant that produced 130,000 miniature circuit breakers (MCBs) a day, then Kurlon which has five plants in Bengaluru manufacturing mattresses, sofas, furniture and foam.

Then came the Kaveri agitation between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, so she shifted to Coimbatore. Today, she is plant head and general manager of the Pune-headquartered Kirloskar Brothers Ltd’s (KBL) pump manufacturing plant at Kaniyur near Coimbatore. The only all-woman facility of its kind in Asia’s pumps capital Coimbatore, it was originally set up as an experiment to see how women would perform on the shop floor. In the eight years since its establishment, it has grown to 180 women operators, producing 80,000 pumps a month using the principles of lean manufacturing and just-in-time purchases.

All the employees do both shifts in rotation; there is no bias. They don’t face any problem, because the local people are “very good, respectable types”, Lakshmi says. Most of them live in the villages nearby; but about 15 of them come from the neighbouring state of Kerala, and KBL has a minibus to pick up and drop them at the border. The women are also looked after at work: there is a hands-on Bodhi training centre which recruits have to attend for a week, and full-fledged creche for each shift – with an average age of 30 years, many of the employees are married and have children whom they can’t leave alone at home.

Lakshmi’s team has set a record by assembling 76,000 pumps in a single month, March 2018. Four years ago, the unit set its first record: 17.25 seconds per pump, an achievement that has been acknowledged by the Limca Book of Records. “We are now planning 100,000 in one month,” she smiles. The team is willing and able, and there is no capacity constraint; only, she says, the demand for the small pumps – of 0.5 horsepower and 1 hp – needs to grow a bit more.

Apart from the Limca record, the unit has an across-the-board accent on quality, with Kaizen and manufacturing excellence systems in place. “Every motor is checked before it is packed for despatch,” Lakshmi says proudly. “We have won 13 awards in one year!”

From dump trucks to turbochargers, switchgears to mattresses and now pumps, this small-town girl has truly “been there, done that”!