The only way to complete the project within the allocated time was to do the hard work harder. E Sreedharan knew the need of the hour was agile and transparent project management. He put in thoughtful efforts to overcome the difficulties and shortcomings he had faced at various junctures during his time at the railways.

Everyone in the team had to know what their specific role was and how much time was left to fulfil what was expected of them. Each member must possess the dedication needed to strive towards the goal. With this in mind, he formulated a set of corporate directions focused on ten major points.

The first was installation of the reverse clocks. In reality, the reverse clocks displayed shorter schedules than the actual allotted time on the books. The presence of reverse clocks gave team members a sense of time ticking away, motivating them to head for their goals without delay.

Sreedharan created a small but highly functional team of top management. The KRCL board vested the highest authority in the hands of its managing director. Legal procedures to select officers and technical employees were followed rigorously under Sreedharan’s supervision.

Significantly, the most important qualities required in a member of his team for the Konkan project were strength of character and honesty.

Beyond educational qualifications and experience on the job, each candidate’s conduct in his or her official capacity was reviewed threadbare. Regardless of the scale of talent and other qualifications, should there be any doubt about a candidate’s integrity in his past, he would be overlooked for the position right away. As a result of this, the Konkan project acquired a lean and agile team in its leadership.

The team had decided they would not micromanage daily activities at the lower levels. Making those who had been delegated the responsibility accountable would suffice. The top management confined their focus to security, design, management, contract payments and advice on strategically significant decisions.

In the same way that chief engineers of each zone were given powers, employees under them too had been given powers relevant to their roles. The intent was to empower employees to take decisions and avoid the culture of dependency on superiors in trivial matters. Not having to rely on the corporate office for their daily activities helped employees down the line move the project much faster.

The Konkan Railway had to pass through seven revenue districts spread across three states. Sreedharan’s next step was to assign the seven districts to seven zones. They were Mahad, Ratnagiri North, Ratnagiri South, Kudal, Panaji, Karwar and Udupi. Each zone would have a chief engineer to oversee the project’s progress in the zone’s domain.

Sreedharan handed over powers to them after dividing up the 760-kilometre line into zones covering 100-120 kilometres each.

His logic for this was simple. Each district had a revenue officer in the designation of district collector, and a police superintendent for law enforcement. All issues could be resolved locally by the person to whom the zone was allotted.

Another reason was that completing several 100-120 kilometre stretches in parallel in five years’ time appeared a much more achievable target to the mind than a 760-kilometre stretch in the same period. Barring unforeseen issues, the project would be on course to make it to the finish line in five years.

Another major strategy was to connect all seven zones to an effective communication grid. In those times, communication infrastructure was not very well developed. Even the major cities did not have moderately reliable – let alone the best of class – communication systems yet.

Effective communications being a non-negotiable requirement for the project, KRCL rented out a line from the department of telecommunications (DoT) for themselves. Phone and fax lines were installed, linking all seven chief engineers’ offices. A network of computer systems was set up. The chief engineers could now get all the relevant information they wanted, and send and receive messages promptly and effectively.

Yet another step Sreedharan took was to restructure financial transactions for the project. As far as the Indian Railways was concerned, this was the most important process of all. All activities in the railways depended on the department of finance, rendering the section a bottleneck and the reason for routine delay of many of the railways’ enterprises.

Although the railways were justifiably capable of decisive schedules, the criticism that their finance department had not been as keen to see their projects accomplished as it was to wield the purse strings, was an established fact. In the light of his own decades of experience at the railways, Sreedharan promised himself that such a tradition would not take root in the new enterprise under his watch.

He prepared himself for a major overhaul, akin to a revolution in conventional financial practice. He had not given special powers to the finance officers at KRCL, as they had been in the railways. On the other hand, those who had real powers were the officers in other departments. They would take the decisions. The finance department could advise them on financial matters only if it was necessary. There was no room for unsolicited intervention or obstructive arguments on their part.

He brought the best finance officers from the railways into his project. Soon, the structural reforms proved to be most practical, and bore considerably beneficial results. It was also noted that there was no friction between the finance officers and others over the course of the project.

The emphasis in the Konkan team was on collective action based on mutual trust.

To facilitate such a culture, papers and files were avoided in everyday activities wherever possible. Every Monday, in Sreedharan’s presence, the project’s progress would be reviewed. The head of every department would attend the meeting. The first meeting of every month would include all the engineers too.

All aspects related to project delivery were discussed at that meeting. The heads of each department would go over the previous week’s plan to review progress and shortfalls. The final item on the agenda would be planning for the upcoming week. The interesting fact about these meetings was that their minutes or the decisions taken were never recorded.

Sreedharan deliberately chose not to do that, as part of his reforms. He considered such practices as nothing more than a waste of time. Everyone involved in the project knew precisely what was going on at the workplace on a daily basis. They need not be told what they were supposed to be doing in the first place. What benefit would it bring to the table when you spend time and resource documenting the activities that are already being done anyway?

Sreedharan’s rationale for the policies and practices he lay down won him his colleagues’ trust, encouraged voluntary accountability, filled them with enthusiasm for work, and brought them a quiet confidence. Above all, there was great team spirit all around.

The next item in focus related to the contractors, who were responsible for the formidable construction works for the Konkan. Sreedharan and his colleagues knew that a project of this nature depended heavily on the contractors’ performance. The Konkan was a railway project, and it went without saying that civil construction works would always be fraught with danger. The contractors’ role in facing up to the dangers and overcoming difficulties would be paramount. The selection of candidates for contract jobs was therefore done with utmost care.

Not all contractors were invited to tender for the jobs. At the same time, Sreedharan made sure those who had proven their skills and efficiency would be with the project. Contractors such as Vellappally Constructions, Cherian Varkey, etc. were some of them. Vellappally had been personally asked to cooperate on this project.

A shortlist of potential contractors was drawn up before the invite was even sent to them. The contractors’ work history, style of functioning and capabilities were researched for the shortlist. The final recipients of the contracts were chosen from among the list.

The contracts contained generous conditions, and a system of advance payment, which was instantly acceptable to the contracting companies. Construction jobs were given to contractors who had stellar records in the country, such as Afcons, L&T, Gammon India, etc. If contractors could not be paid in time, progress of the construction works would be blocked.

Then there was the importance of giving them timely and proper instructions, without which the best of them would fail to deliver. These were the lessons Sreedharan had learnt from his three-decade term at the railways. He made sure timely decisions were made to help the contractors perform their work without a hitch, no matter how complex the issue, and even if it required the CMD himself to weigh in.

His colleagues and contractors could recall several occasions when Sreedharan himself travelled miles to facilitate the decision-making process. So many tunnels and bridges were being built at the same time, and many verdicts and opinions were being tossed about for consideration all the time. To push the jobs on all fronts needed effort on a very great scale. The promise to contractors that no decision would take more than forty-eight hours ever was one that was set in stone.

Decisions were taken on the spot when it was so required.

The fast and unambiguous directions that came as a result of the process Sreedharan had set in helped accelerate the project’s progress. P Sreeram, who had been with Sreedharan since 1970, recalled an incident during his time at Konkan.

Construction of a major tunnel was on, and as the work progressed, the machine got stuck in a huge rock. Sreeram explained the situation to the CMD, who happened to be at the site. There was no option but to stop the day’s work, except if another tunnel was bored to remove the rock, Sreeram suggested.

“Then we are doing it,” Sreedharan said. Sreeram was not sure when he could start working on the second tunnel. “Right now!” Sreedharan responded as though this question should never have been raised. Sreeram’s apprehensions were about the approval and budget needed for the additional work. He told Sreedharan so.

“That should never be an issue. Let me worry about it. What’s worse would be halting the work. Time is precious. Do not delay. Let’s begin.” As soon as Sreedharan finished his sentence, the machinery began to hum and charge to work. That was Sreedharan’s style of functioning.

Excerpted with permission from Karmayogi: The Biography of E Sreedharan, MS Ashokan, Penguin Books.