Thursday, October 12

gandhi-giri and new york subway cars

I saw a Hindi movie on Friday called “Lage Raho Munna Bhai”, directed by Rajkumar Hirani. It was smart, hilarious and very intersting. In the movie, the protagonist Munna Bhai uses Gandhigiri, Gandhism equivalent of Dadagiri, to solve his problem. Even though the movie is about social transformation, it doesn’t get as preachy as the tamil director Shankar’s movies. But the significant difference between Raj kumar Hirani’s Munna Bhai and Shankar’s Anniyan/Indian is that Shankar uses the philosophy of fear (as typified by the cliche “An eye for an eye”) and Hirani tries the antithesis of fear - love, as manifested by the principles of Gandhism. But, if you don’t want to get so touchy by using the word “love”, feel free to give your own name. In the movie, Munna Bhai appears in his friend’s on-call radio program, to provide solution for the callers’ problems based on the principles of Gandhism.

Here is an example of such a Gandhi-an method, Munna advises. One of the callers’ problem is that his neighbor spits pan right at his door, making the door and the area around it look like cat puke. The caller says he had tried to tell the neighbor, but he doesn’t stop spitting. The Munna Bhai’s gandhigiri solution caller is this: After the neighbor spits in front of the door, smile at the him, and Clean the door. The idea was to send a message to the neighbor by cleaning the door over and again, and thus producing a transformation in the heart of the neighbor. I agree its touchy. In the movie, Munna Bhai shows that Gandhi’s method works, when the neighbor stops his spit act. While watching this scene at the movie, I hear murmurs among the audience questioning if such a solution would work in real life. I would be one of those audience, if I had not read the book “Tipping Point” written by Malcolm Gladwell.

The book “Tipping Point” is about an interesting phenomenon defined by the moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like an wildfire - like an epidemic. In this book, Gladwell discusses about such a phenomenon that happened in New york city in the 1990s, causing the crime rate to plummet. In the city, during a period of five years, murder rates fell by two-thirds, and total crimes fell by half. Gladwell says that this crime drop has the same characteristics of the spread of epidemics. He defines three principles of epidemics - The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the most interesting one I think is, The Power of Context. My point of interest is the the “The Power of Context”, which says “Human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they seem.” and “A small change in a person’s immediate environment can cause big effects”. For the other two, here is an writeup of these principles in the context of marketing.

While discussing the power of context in the case of New york city, Gladwell produces examples about the small changes brought about in the New york subway systems that helped reverse the city’s crime epidemic. David Gunn was appointed the new subway director. He insisted that they have to start with the small things that symbolically indicate an environment for crime to happen. Graffiti being painted on the subway cars is such a symbol. Gunn decides to take on graffiti before anything else. He says

The graffiti was the symbolic collapse of the system. When you looked at the process of rebuilding the organization and morale, you had to win the battle against graffiti. Without winning that battle, all management reforms and physical changes just weren’t going to happen.

How did Gunn handle the problem of Graffiti in New york’s subway cars ? He drew up a new management structure aimed at cleaning the system line by line, train by train. On stainless-steel cars, solvents were used. On the painted cars, the graffiti was simply painted over. OK. What if the cars were vandalized again ? They cleaned again, and again. They were religious about their cleaning. At the end of the line, where the trains stopped and turned around, Gunn setup a cleaning station. If a car came in with graffiti, the graffiti had to be removed during the changeover, or the car was removed from the service. They make sure dirty cars are never mixed with clean cars. The idea was to send a clear message to the vandals - by cleaning over and again.

I was totally struck the method Gunn used to make the subways clean - not harsher punishment for the vandals, but to send a message to them by cleaning the cars. Of course, there is a difference between the tone, the kind of the message (or even a subtle difference in the motive), Gunn and Munna Bhai conveyed to their subjects. But the action point is the same - If you want to stop people from making dirty of public places, you just have to keep it cleaning - rigorously and continuously.

If it works for the multi-billion dollar cars of the New york subway system, it sure would work for everyone.

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