Bureaucracy = Naked Workflows?

Its almost 12 weeks since I got here and after checking with many trusted friends, I decided to order the broadband internet connection from BSNL, the government-run telephone company.

My friends also told me that I could now place the order over the internet. I said wow! and placed the order over the internet – I did notice that the online form did not ask for any payment details like credit cards etc.

A few days later I got a call from BSNL saying that I should now pay the security deposit and only after that the connection can be given. When I asked whether I can send the cheque over to them by post, they said okay, to my surprise. But I did not do that because I was worried that the cheque may get misplaced. So I decided to go to BSNL’s office in G.R Complex on Mount Road (Anna Salai) today and make the payment in person.

What happened next gave me this insight that bureaucracy is nothing but a naked customer-orchestrated workflow. Let us come back to this after I describe what happened.

1. I went first to a set of counters in the ground floor, where there were a few people standing, which I assumed were customer service staff.  By the way, this area looked like any typical customer service office. When my turn came, the staff politely directed me to the 3rd floor commercial section.

2. After entering the 3rd floor, I was now amidst a sea of desks as far as my eye could see and most desks had stacks of paper. A few desks had computers and lots of people were there busy working on something. Another thing I noticed was that the office was not air-conditioned but had plenty of fans. So even though it was not cool, it was not hot either.

3. I now noticed an office with a board bearing the sign “Commercial Officer – 1”. I knocked on the door, entered the office and the gentleman inside asked me politely for the area code of my phone number and looked up a directory on his desk and told me to go to the “Commercial Officer – 3” which happened to lie all the way across the office floor on the other side.

4. I went to the other side as directed and I was happy to see the sign “Commercial Officer – 3”, knocked on the door, entered the office and the lady inside asked me to go see a Mr. XYZ sitting outside her office in the cubicle with some 6 or 7 desks in it. When I pointed to her that there were several people sitting outside her office, she politely pointed to Mr.XYZ.

5. Mr.XYZ now took down my details, walked up to a desk containing a computer, waited for his turn since the computer was in use by some other employee. After about 5 minutes, he got his turn at the computer, punched in some details into a black and white screen and printed out a form in triplicate (complete with carbon paper) on a dot-matrix printer. He handed the form to me and asked me to get a signature from the same “Commercial Officer – 3”. I took the form and went to the office again, but this time, I could not find the lady. I guess she had stepped out. As I was wondering what to do, another supervisor-looking lady appeared and signed the form for me.

6. Now Mr.XYZ asked me to go pay the fee at the payment counter which was in a different part of the same building. I left this building walked down the stairs, asked around and went to the payment counter and paid the fee. Now I got a neat computer-printed receipt which I took back to Mr. XYZ.

7. Mr. XYZ now went to another employee sitting in front of another computer (not the one he used to print the payment form initially). Mr. XYZ gave some instructions to that employee and came back with another printed form that mentioned that payment has been received and within 3 days someone will come and install the connection. The form also mentioned a number I should call if there is a delay.

This whole thing took around 30-40 minutes and contrary to popular belief,  I never got the sense that I was dealing with not-so-intelligent people or that people were slackers or that people were rude/impolite. Also, it did not appear as if BSNL is under-staffed. So what’s the rational explanation for this ?

I also had another experience today at Rathna Stores, Pondy Bazaar and putting two and two together, it occurred to me that – as a customer we are actually expected to orchestrate BSNL’s workflow or Rathna Stores’s Workflow (which I will cover later here) and all the while the entire workflow is completely naked, in the sense that you can observe the workflow in front of your eyes. Additionally, even though you provide no input to most of the workflow, you actually are running the entire workflow!

Why doesn’t BSNL have a process, where in the ground floor counter where I first started, collect my payment, tell me an expected turn around time, run the workflow in the back ground and give me the receipt. Come to think of it, a regular restaurant in any part of the world does this well. Why not at BSNL? I am sure this is the story in most government run organizations, but what about the private companies?

Again popular opinion would indicate that private companies are better. Let me recount the 2nd incident that happened today at Rathna Stores. BTW, Rathna Stores is a store that I and Priya Raju greatly admire for their customer service, superb assortment of goods and above all a reasonable price.

At this store, like many large stores in India, you pick out the goods you want and a receipt is generated at that location within the store which mentions the item(s) and the price(s). You take this receipt and if you have picked out stuff from multiple points in the store, you take all the receipts you have collected and take it to a payment counter. 

At  the counter, you will be asked cash or credit and based on that they will point you to a credit counter or a cash counter. In this case, I paid by credit card and so I went to the credit counter and here a form was printed in triplicate (god, how much we love the triplicate copies).

I was asked to take the form to the next counter. The person at this counter checked something in the computer in front of him, put a rubber stamp on the form and asked me to take it to the next person. This person again checked something on the form and put another rubber stamp. Now I was asked to take the form to the delivery counter. Here one of the clerks standing there inspected the form, picked out the stuff I had bought from the pile behind the counter, put it into a plastic bag, put one more rubber stamp on my form marking it delivered and handed the goods to me.

Here again, other than presenting my credit card when asked, I provided no input, but I ended up running their payment process for them. Couldn’t there be a better process which is managed by the Rathna Stores’s employees and how much better their image would become?


1. A very interesting account of customer service at an Indian restaurant in the Chennai Journal. Its a blog maintained by an expatriate American working in Chennai (Blog spotted via Desipundit).

2. Another interesting write-up on the sheer number of staff in the Lifestyle super store in Chennai by Prince Roy. You have to scroll down the page to get to the post on the Lifestyle store complete with a picture. He used to be an employee of the American Embassy in Chennai (Via Chennai Journal).






  1. Anonymous said April 9, 2006, 8:17 pm:

    Very nice post Sukumar. I had somewhat of a similar experience at the regsitrar’s office in Chennai – which is a state run organization. Here, besides running the process, I also had to grease the process via bribe!! Everyone from the registrar to the guy who finally stamped the documents had to be oiled.

    One other thing that stuck me while I was in India this January was the sheer number of people manning these stores. Not that this made the shop any more efficient. I think they are all relatives of the shop owner’s wife ;).


  2. Anonymous said April 11, 2006, 11:14 am:

    Thanks Ganesh. I am yet to visit a true government office. BSNL is just government-like. BTW, on the number of employees in stores – that’s what makes me very optimistic that the opening up of the retail sector will create many more jobs!