How My Grandmother Impacted a Multimillion Dollar American Plant's Success? Is Connecting Dots Innovation?

06/04/2015 05:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

During the winters of the mid/late '80s, one thing was certain in my life in South India. My grandmother ("Patti") would show up on my last day of school! She would whisk away my siblings, my cousins and me, on the last train back to her village for the winter vacations. All grandkids looked forward to it -- pure fun, loads of affection and the best part -- no expectations.

Every morning, she would gather us all around and she would heat up the freshly milked pot from the home cows. She lit up her earthen stove with charcoal ("aduppu"). Sometimes, the winter moisture would trouble her. I remember her dexterous hands that glistened with her daily golden bangles, working the magic . She would add a bit of sawdust to pep the charcoal up and an all-knowing smile would engulf her face.

I never imagined in my life that the magic of a simple act by my grand mom from a south Indian village could one day profoundly impact a commercial plant operation on other side of the world.

Connecting the Dots

A few years ago, I was back in the office after a vacation. I was doing my rounds catching up with folks. I was about to cross the office of a seasoned executive. I did not have a business reason to enter his office. I entered anyway. He had a positive aura around him. Every time I entered, I always felt more positive and better by the time I left his office. I called him Mr. Positive Energy. As always, he was seated at his desk, looked up and welcomed me with his warm smile. After some pleasantries and chit-chat, I asked him what was the most pressing issue he was working on. A power plant was built sitting on top of a coal source. The way he explained it to me -- they dug the coal from underneath -- it was like layers of sponge cake with coal and clay mixed up, held together by water. The wetness of the coal/ clay combination created problems for the conveyor belt system that moved the coal while it dried. There was substantial caking -- similar to dried up clay on a jeep wheel that had visited rugged terrain. He added -- "The plant folks are exploring solutions."

I asked him whether they have considered keeping the conveyor belt wet at all times, he said they have but that keeps the coal moist, reducing efficiency. Casually, without too much thought, I suggested that they look into sawdust. The engineer in him brightened up, his eye popped, he added, "it is elegantly simple - flammable product and a water absorbent." He immediately made a call to his plant manager. When he put the phone down, he mentioned with his ever beaming smile -- looks like we will have a wood crusher mobilized. He gave me a pat on the back and said, "this is going to be a game changer for this multimillion dollar plant."

The next time I met Mr. Positive Energy, he was beaming again. He shared the success story at the plant and gave me credit for chipping in. While he was speaking, I was left wondering how much it would have meant to me to share it with my grandmother who passed away a few years before then.

Tribute and the Bigger Impact

If connecting dots inspires innovations, this contribution of my grandmother from a village in India impacting a massive plant in America would be cherished among the top in my life.

The vagaries of life bring wows and wonders in great measure and it has given me immense pleasure to grab the opportunity to share it with the world - a tribute to my mom's mom, one of the most brilliant soul I had the privilege to meet in my lifetime. Her abilities constrained by the times she was born- all she could complete was 4th grade. Yet, she marshaled immense pleasure in what life offered her - keeping her family well fed and yet grilling in us an insatiable hunger for more - knowledge for the most meaningful and simple things in life. I owe a lot to her - writing my first alphabets with chalk on her kitchen floor, summer/winter vacation stories from mythologies and many more. In the belief that it is better late than never, I am leaning in to salute my grand mom and her memories - a woman ahead of her times in spirit.