CEO of Thermax, Unnikrishnan leads a company which cleans up corporate waste and returns the purity to water and air. ‘Innovation seeks to make a science of what is essentially an art form.’ he says. ‘As I searched for the truth in books, events and people, I realised that maths and logic will take you so far. There was a quantum leap that needed a totally different approach…..to spawn innovation. Training in Thermax included working on the shop floor and interacting with mentors who included the best brains in the country. Converting an enthusiastic student into a mature manager included training in communication, effective listening, interpersonal skills and mental mobility – the ability to move smoothly into different role,’ he explained. ‘Mentors need a reservoir of mental and spiritual fullness before they can really develop others. Mentoring in this fast moving world, the changing value systems make this a much tougher job. The replacement of life time’s employment, with the transience of job hopping is a real challenge.’
He admires his company. ‘This company trusts people. They have a lot of freedom to succeed or fail. Even in the formative years, new ideas get supported by the profit making parts of the company. Heat recovery was an idea sparked off by the company. Mr. Rohinton Aga supported the idea for five years with no sign of profits. Water treatment took 7 – 8 years to be profitable.’ He enunciates one of the core principles of innovation. ‘Top management need to handhold managers through the dark night of innovation. People who work on anything for the first time need to be supported through a testing gestation period and even initial failures.’
Unni is very clear as he enunciates the principles at Thermax, ‘Most of us believe that business is a set of numbers. But we at Thermax, believe that business is a set of values. Compassionate policies will create values and innovation. Emotive bonding of the employee with the company will encourage people to stick their necks out and take risks.’ One of their landmark innovations was in the 1970’s, when the textile industry was using the hot oil system. ‘We replaced it with electrical heating through our product, ‘thermo pads’. Our structure encourages innovation. We have an Executive Vice-president- Innovation and Technology – Dr. R.R.Sonde, who leads a team of innovation heads from every division’.
Process innovation is imparted along with product innovation. The process is consistently encouraged by:
1) Annual innovation awards
2) Consistent Technology Innovation
3) We involve customer at the centre of our innovation process
‘Our customers, for example, did not like to have us assembling our 350 tonne boilers at their site. So we hired a facility at the Bombay port where the thousands of components were assembled and transported on barges or project vessels to Dubai. We really listen to customers.’