Only Zero Tolerance can prevent Unpunctuality!

The first session of a Management Training Programme had just ended at 12.30 pm. Dr. Prasad, the Programme Faculty, announced that the next session would start as per the original schedule at 2.00 pm. The participants, all engineers, MBAs or Chartered Accountants with 10 to 15 years’ work experience, dispersed for lunch. All of them had been sponsored by their respective employers for the 4-days programme at a 5 Star Holiday Resort.

When some of the participants returned at 1.55 pm, Dr. Prasad was already present. At exactly 2.00 pm, he started his presentation. When one of the participants pointed out that only 11 of the 40 participants were present, Dr. Prasad ignored him and continued with his presentation. At about 2.05 pm, participants started walking in. The last participant entered at about 2.10 pm. Dr. Prasad continued with his presentation without a second glance at the latecomers walking in.

At the conclusion of the session at 4.00 pm, Dr. Prasad announced, “The next session will start at 4.40 pm. Of course, you are free to come back at any time according to your convenience.”

All 40 participants reported on time for all the remaining sessions of the Training Programme!

In the last session, Dr. Prasad described to the participants how, till a few years earlier, he would start the training sessions late, only after all, or almost all participants were present. His repeated requests to participants to report on time yielded little or no result. One day, in a fit of frustration, he started a training session on time even though very few of the participants were present. At the end of that session, he simply announced, “Time and tide, and I wait for no man!” He found that this approach solved the unpunctuality problem, and continued using it in all future training programmes.

Do you agree that only Zero Tolerance can prevent Unpunctuality?

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IST: Indian Standard Time or Indian Stretchable Time?

A European manufacturer, on his first visit to India, and I were at a large automotive factory on the outskirts of the city discussing the customer’s requirement of equipment for their new project. At the end of the day, we had not completed our discussion. I asked the customer what time we should meet him the next morning. His reply was, “9.00 – 9.30.” As soon as we started driving back towards the city, the European visitor asked me, “What did the gentleman mean by 9.00 – 9.30?” I explained, “He normally starts work at 8.00. I guess he meant that he’ll complete his routine work within 60 to 90 minutes. So, he will definitely be ready to start the meeting at 9.30, maybe earlier, but not before 9.00.” The European gentleman just could not understand why the customer had to give us a 30-minute range. We decided to reach the customer’s factory at 9.00. This might have meant that we would have to wait for 30 minutes or less, but we both did not want to make the customer wait for us if he was ready to start the meeting at 9.00.

The next day, we reached the customer’s office at 9.00 am and cooled our heels for about 75 minutes until the customer walked in at 10.15 am. He neither expressed any regret nor did he offer any explanation for keeping us waiting.

That afternoon, as we were driving back to the city, the European gentleman stated that he was disgusted that, not only had the customer reached so late for our meeting, he had neither expressed any regret nor offered any explanation for his late arrival. He said this showed that this customer was habitually unpunctual. He expressed surprise at the fact that I was not at all upset. I replied that, while the customer’s unpunctuality today had upset me, I knew I had to put up with his unpunctuality if I wanted to do business with him.

In reply to his next question, I replied that most of our customers and most other people in India are quite punctual. This was not true, but I felt I should not speak ill of my compatriots to a foreigner. The truth is unpunctuality is rampant in India. Most of us consider it our birthright to be late! The quip that IST stands for Indian Stretchable Time, not Indian Standard Time, is today a cruel joke on us Indians. It is strange that, while we generally do not miss flights or trains or bill payment deadlines, many of us are consistently unpunctual in our daily lives. I have described an incident about my customer’s unpunctuality, but unpunctuality is very common among all kinds of people irrespective of age, gender, religion, caste, economic status, educational background, profession, place of residence, etc. I have come across salespersons reaching late for meetings (when I’m the customer), job applicants reporting late for interviews, students reporting late for examinations … the list is endless!

I am a time-conscious person. I try to be punctual always, and succeed most of the time. If I get delayed for reasons beyond my control, I inform the other person(s) as soon as I know I am likely to be delayed. I expect the same from others. I get terribly upset every time I encounter persons who are not time-conscious. Unless I have compelling reasons not to do so, I make my displeasure clear to such persons.

Nobody is intentionally unpunctual. Then, why is unpunctuality so widespread in India? Firstly, it’s because we do not value time: our own or that of others. Secondly, we take so much pride in being tolerant that punctual persons tolerate the unpunctuality of others. After a while, most punctual persons also become unpunctual. It’s only the unreasonable persons (like me) who insist on being punctual and on others being punctual.

(This post was originally published on August 03, 2013.)

Punctuality: 2 extremes

Some years back, I visited Taiwan along with a customer from India for pre-shipment inspection and trials of a machine. We checked in to our hotel rooms one Sunday evening, and were to be picked up by the machine manufacturer’s Sales Manager at 8.30 am the next day. I knew that my customer was a consistently unpunctual person, so I warned him that unpunctuality was looked down upon in Taiwan, hence we should be ready to leave at 8.30 am because the Sales Manager would reach our hotel lobby at exactly 8.30 am. Accordingly, we met in the lobby restaurant at 8.00 am, had a leisurely breakfast and were winding up with coffee at around 8.20 am, when we were informed that “Ms. Chen just telephoned. She is extremely sorry that she will reach 5 minutes late.” For the record, Ms. Chen reached at 8.34 am! The inspection and trials were completed on Friday evening. My customer was amazed to find that, for the next 4 days, Ms. Chen reached our hotel lobby between 8.29 am and 8.30 am every day!

At the other end of the punctuality spectrum was an Accountant in the office where I worked many years back. This gentleman lived just 2 km from the office and had been provided with a motorcycle, but reported about 40 minutes late for work every day! When the Branch Manager questioned him, the Accountant explained that his frequent latecoming was due to some unavoidable domestic work like getting his children ready for school, etc. The Branch Manager decided to resolve the issue by changing the Accountant’s timings from 9.00 – 5.30 to 10.00 – 6.30. This worked for a few weeks. After that, the Accountant started reporting for work at about 10.20 almost every day!!

Would you like people to be like Ms. Chen or like the Accountant?

If Ms. Chen scores 10 on a Punctuality Scale of 0 to 10, while the Accountant scores 0, how much do you score?

Making others punctual

Punctual persons get terribly upset every time they encounter persons who are not time-conscious. Yet, they often tolerate the unpunctuality of others. Sometimes, it’s out of compulsion (as I did in the case of my customer in ‘IST: Indian Standard Time or Indian Stretchable Time?’). Sometimes, it’s because of our excessively tolerant nature. Mostly, it’s because we think we just can’t change the other person!

Can an unpunctual person be made punctual? Yes!

Early in my career, I worked with a marketing company having branches in about a dozen places in India. Each Sales Executive had to send a Sales Status Report to the Head Office every month. If a Sales Executive’s SSR did not reach HO by the 5th of the month, his salary and his Branch Manager’s salary would be withheld. Their salary would be paid only after the Managing Director informed Accounts Department that he was satisfied with the written explanations given by the Sales Executive and his Branch Manager for not sending the SSR on time. Needless to say, no Sales Executive ever missed the deadline! More importantly, every Branch Manager ensured that all SSRs from his branch reached HO on time every month!!

Maybe an employer can get away with such tough action, but what can a customer do about a tardy salesperson? The Sales Manager of an insurance company had agreed to meet me in my office at 3.00 pm one day regarding Health Insurance policies for our employees. Since he had not turned up by 4.00 pm, I contacted him on his mobile phone. He apologised and explained that he was held up at a client’s place in another part of the city. He had no answer when I asked him why he hadn’t bothered to inform me. Anyway, he agreed to meet me at 10.00 am the next day. Despite my scolding the previous day, he turned up one hour late, again without having informing me that he would be late. I was so upset that, as he entered my office, I gave him five 1 Rupee coins and said, “It appears your company and you are facing a cash crunch, that’s why you don’t want to spend money on phone calls. I am reimbursing you in advance for phone calls that you may have to make in future to inform me that you will be late for a meeting with me! After you have used up this money, I’ll give you some more!!” The guy was shocked. He made an attempt to refuse the money, to which I said, “If you don’t accept this money, you can forget about any business from me!” He took the money. From that day, he has never reported late for any meeting with me. He claimed he had become equally punctual with all customers. I hope he was telling me the truth!

An employer may have the upper hand in an employer-employee relationship, a customer may have the upper hand in a customer-salesperson relationship, but in a teacher-student relationship, it is the teacher who has the upper hand! So, is it possible for a punctual student take a tough stand against his tardy teacher? Possible or not, one student did!! About 25 years back, BK joined a prestigious engineering institute to do his M.Tech. BK was a highly disciplined and systematic person, in complete contrast to his M.Tech Guide, Prof. NB, who was laidback and unpunctual, but a brilliant engineer, researcher and teacher! At the end of the first year, BK had to make a presentation about his M.Tech Project to a panel consisting of Prof. NB, an internal examiner and an external examiner. The presentation was scheduled for 3.00 pm on a Thursday. BK reached the venue at 2.00 pm and completed his preparations by 2.30 pm. Both examiners reached around 2.50 pm, but there was no sign of Prof. NB. At 3.30 pm, BK apologized to the examiners for the inconvenience caused to them due to his guide’s non-arrival, announced that he was not waiting any longer and walked out of the room. Prof. NB reached around 3.40 pm and was told that BK had left at 3.30 pm. The next day, Prof. NB asked BK why he had walked out at 3.30 pm. BK replied, “Sir, my watch may be 10 minutes fast, your watch may be 10 minutes slow, 10 minutes delay is OK; totally 30 minutes is allowed. After that, if you haven’t reached and you haven’t called or sent a message, it means you don’t respect me. I don’t want to work under a guide who does not respect me.” All those present expected the temperamental Prof. NB to react angrily, but he knew he had met his match! He apologized to BK, admitted his mistake, assured him that this would never occur again, and convinced BK to continue work on his project.

Unless there are compelling not to do so on certain occasions, punctual people must express their displeasure explicitly whenever they encounter callous unpunctuality. If they manage to change the other person, good! If not, they would at least have let off some steam!!

Why and How to be punctual

I was always proud to be a very punctual person: never late, always early … until I met one of my business associates who was much, much better: never late, never early, always on time! Irrespective of the location or time of day, he always reported for meetings just 5 minutes before the appointed time. The best part was he seemed to do it effortlessly! On my request, he readily shared the secret of his punctuality:

A person can be punctual only if she/he is passionate about being punctual. A person can be passionate about something only if she/he believes in it. So, before asking How, we must ask Why.

Why do I want to be punctual? Punctuality is all about efficient utilisation of a non-renewable resource called Time! Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be changed from one form to another. Time cannot be created, but time can be destroyed by not using it! Each day contains 24 hours or 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds. It’s up to me to use these 86,400 seconds. If I use my time efficiently, I can get much more work done in the same amount of time, or it could mean I can complete my work in less time, leaving more time for family, friends and myself. So, it’s in my own interests not to waste my time. As a responsible person, I should also not cause another person to waste her/his time.

I know that my punctuality gives signals to others about my character, integrity, self-respect, dependability, discipline, humility, etc., and this improves my professional prospects. But this is only an added benefit.

Avoiding latecoming is fine! But why do I avoid being early? If I arrive too early for a meeting, I would make my host uncomfortable about making me wait. This is especially true in case of personal matters. For example, if my friends have invited us for dinner at their house at 8.00 pm, we make it a point to reach between 7.55 pm and 8.00 pm. If we reach too early, our hosts may still be getting ready!

How do I manage to be on time? For example, I have to be at your office at 3.30 pm. If I’ll be coming from my office, I know it would normally be a 45 minute drive at that time. I add a buffer of 10 minutes and leave my office at 2.35 pm. I drive at a leisurely speed, without any pressure. At the Nehru Nagar junction, if I’m on schedule or ahead of schedule, I continue driving at a leisurely speed. If I’m behind schedule, I drive slightly faster, within the speed limits of course! In any case, I would reach your office building by 3.20 pm, giving me sufficient time to reach your office around 3.25 pm. If I happen to reach early, I wait down till it’s 3.20 pm, then walk towards your office. In the meanwhile, I make phone calls. By any chance, if I’m delayed, I would inform you as soon as I know that I’m going to be delayed, and leave it to you to reschedule the meeting to later that day or some other day. There was one instance when I was caught in a massive traffic jam, and I could not call my customer from my mobile phone because I was driving. I reached my customer’s office 30 minutes late, but my reputation as a stickler for punctuality saved me. My customer was not upset at having been kept waiting. He was confident that I had been stuck in unusually heavy traffic, and that I had not telephoned him because I would not use my mobile phone while driving! To summarise, make a realistic commitment, plan well, have a buffer. Despite this, if there’s a delay, inform as soon as possible.