Interview: Ajay Prabhu (COO) and Sonia Kutty (GM-HR) of QuEST share their experience of implementing People CMM® in an engineering organization

Ajay Prabhu (AP) is the Chief Operating Officer and Sonia Kutty (SK)  is  General Manager – Human Resources  at QuEST. In this interview, they share their experiences in the transformation brought about at QuEST, through the People CMM® initiative.

QuEST (OBU – India, Bangalore) was appraised and rated at maturity level 3 of the People CMM® in June 2012, using the SCAMPI-A (v1.2) appraisal methodology. Read more details here.

Q:           Please tell us something about your professional history/ background

Ajay Photo 1Ajay Prabhu (AP):            Oh well, it started off with a flight from Bombay-to-Boston back in 1990. After graduating from National Institute of Technology, I joined a Masters program in the University of Massachusetts. Seven memorable and intellectually-enriching years later, I graduated with a PhD in high frequency electronics and joined Hewlett Packard in Sonoma County, California. Unlike most others with a PhD, I joined the manufacturing part of HP’s Test & Measurement Division. It was a great experience, going from a research environment to the hustle and bustle of the manufacturing floor. After a couple of years into the job, HP divested our division into an independent company – Agilent Technologies. It was an exhilarating time when the company was transforming; I too transformed alongside. In 2002, I decided to move back to India and have been with QuEST ever since. I have had a fantastic journey while learning and contributing to QuEST’s transformation from a small 200 people company to 4000 people fast-growing global enterprise.Sonia Photo 1

Sonia Kutty (SK):              Well, you could say I am a thoroughbred “Questian” since a major part of my career has been with QuEST. When I joined QuEST way back in 2002 we were a small company with 300 employees or so. Today we touch 4000 and it has been a tremendous journey.

Prior to QuEST, I worked with Toyota Kirloskar Motors in the Human Resource Planning Department.

Q:           Please tell us something about your organization, QuEST.

AP:         QuEST is indeed a nice story. Started by college graduates, who spotted an opportunity to build a business around better ‘customer focus’. This central theme has been the mainstay of QuEST growth since inception in 1997 in New York, USA.

The company was an early adopter of offshoring of Engineering Services when QuEST set up its India presence in 1998. QuEST is ‘Born to Engineer’; we are completely focused on providing engineering services to a  few marquee customers in Power Generation, Oil & Gas, Aerospace, Transport and Industrial verticals. QuEST is busy bringing engineers of many nationalities to work together as one seamless team to bring unprecedented value to our customers –  “Great quality at competitive pricing”. Today, QuEST employs close to 1000 American, 250 English, 250 Spanish, 100 Australian, 100 Italian and 2300 Indians working out of 29 different cities spread across the world. QuEST is a truly global engineering company. We have been doubling our staff every 24 months for quite a few years now.

Q:           When and how did you start the journey with the People CMM® model at QuEST?

AP:          I think it was October 2004 when I first got interested in the whole concept of maturity models. I remember Rajesh Naik making a presentation to our executive team at our half-yearly leadership meeting on the concept of People CMM®. Ever since, it was always on my mind.  A good idea is a good idea until you find a better one. I haven’t found anything better yet!

SK:          The way I see it, there have been two journeys, one which took us some distance, and the second one which actually helped achieve  a major milestone. The first one started in 2006 where we worked on strengthening the maturity level 2 process areas and building the foundation for the competency based process areas of maturity level 3. We had to put the journey on hold for some time due to other priorities.

Q:           What were the expectations in terms of what the model would do for QuEST (when you began the journey)?

AP:         We have all grown many years since 2004, haven’t we? I used to be young and restless then. I am still restless but not that young anymore. At an early stage in 2004, I remember asking Rajesh Naik “when can we finish this”? I remember him responding only with a smile. Now I know why.

Going back to the question, I wanted the model to bring some method to the madness. In an entrepreneurial, growing company, a lot of time and effort is wasted by people trying to introduce the next best idea they read in a newspaper on a flight! There are plenty of flights, plenty of newspaper articles on HR and plenty of ideas. The People CMM® model articulated quite well what is important and in what sequence each of the items should be implemented to systematically mature HR practices in any organization. It has worked like a charm.

SK:        From the word go, we were clear that in achieving People CMM® maturity level 3, our aim was to build robust people practices within QuEST. The model provided a solid framework which would help to create HR systems which would take us from where we are today to where we want to be, which is a $500M Company by 2015.

The other expectation was to use the model to position and benchmark ourselves against best-in-class companies which have used and benefited from the same.

Q:           How did you run the initiative?

AP:          The timelines are a bit blurred now. I think it was in 2006 that we started our journey. We put a stop in 2008, when we had a singular focus on growing in an environment where every other business was shrinking. We emerged stronger and picked up the initiative again back up in 2010.

I started by having everyone in critical leadership positions go through 2-days training on the model. This was critical as everyone had to be on the same page and supportive of this initiative. Sonia identified a project leader in HR department who would run the initiative. The initiative was taken as an Organizational Key Result Area (KRA) and driven to every level. All the people were kept involved with periodic newsletters and the project was run with a rhythm of weekly meetings and status updates, and daily-stand-up meetings whenever required.

Total commitment from Sonia to drive the teams and achieve the maturity in HR practices was the single most important factor, from my perspective.

SK:          Working with task forces or CFT (Cross Functional Teams) as we call them is second nature to QuEST. We seem to have a CFT for everything! In that context, it seemed only natural to form a CFT for this important initiative.

Within QuEST we had various groups that were responsible for practices for various process areas. Given our natural tendency to form CFTs and the heterogeneity of the groups involved, it was very natural to form a People CMM® team which was reporting to the COO (Ajay Prabhu) who was the Sponsor of the project. Each process had a Process Owner. In addition we had a Project Leader from HR who had the responsibility to guide and provide support to each Process Owner. One additional resource we included to drive the initiative was an external consultant who had previous experience with the model.

The Project Leader and the external consultant had weekly one-on-one sessions with the Process Owners. Thursdays was the day when the entire team came together for a review with the Sponsor. As you can imagine, Thursday became a very important (and sometimes dreaded!) day on my calendar.

Q:           Please explain the extent of involvement of other executive managers in the whole implementation

AP:          People CMM® is an organizational initiative. Support of all key groups and people at all levels is necessary. Once people realize that model helps them personally, they support it. I spent a lot of effort to educate and align leadership folks at all levels on the benefits of People CMM®. In a growing company, a lot of new people join at all levels, so it is not a trivial task to keep evangelizing. In QuEST, I have had rhythm of monthly half-day workout meeting with all managers at mid-level and above. We call this the QuEST-Gazelles meeting through which we workout and execute organizational priorities. The idea for this meeting is something I picked up from my trainer and mentor Verne Harnish, The Growth Guru (

SK:          As I shared earlier, there were about six different groups apart from HR involved in this initiative. Hence, managers and senior personnel were part of the process. The executive team was part of the Thursday review meetings. On a whole, this exercise would not have been possible but for the support of the various members involved at different levels in the organization. Having Ajay drive this from the top helped provide the initial momentum.

Q:           Please tell us something about the timelines for achieving your maturity level 3 rating

AP:   Stopping an initiative of this nature is not good. It takes a while to pick up the momentum and when you put a stop, it makes it harder to get people to rally behind it the next time.  Fortunately people were all too eager to restart the journey in 2010. It took us about 18 months to tie all the loose ends, cross all t’s, and dot all the i’s. As everyone in QuEST knows– we do not do anything for the sake of a ‘piece of paper’. We do it because we want to genuinely improve the organization, we want to improve the quality of people’s lives in the company, we want to become more competitive, and we want to serve our customers better.

SK:  In terms on milestones, after we restarted, we did a gap analysis in June 2010. This was followed by some spot checks, followed by a mini-appraisal and then the final appraisal.

Q:           What kind of external expertise and help did you resort to? Did this help you?

AP:          External help is crucial. It is easy for an internal team to get confused and get sucked into endless debates/discussions. Sometimes the pragmatism goes out the window. The inter linkages between different process areas get all tangled up. System-level thinking is necessary. External help was crucial and enabling in clearing these logjams. Also, I had the teams do periodic directional-review of where we were heading and how far we had travelled. We also took help of other external consultants as the credibility and expertise of the external consultants such as Hewitt and E&Y were important to get things done well and quickly.

SK:          Two sources of external expertise come to mind. Chinmay Pradhan was our friendly assessor and we were fortunate to have him guide us through this exercise. While his knowledge and command on the model was unquestionable, I was more impressed by his unassuming attitude and problem solving ability. While Chinmay was able to find gaps in our processes, his ability to provide possible solutions is what is truly commendable. The word “Not Possible” does not seem to exist in his dictionary. All this in his usual quiet, controlled and friendly style. I am a big fan of this man!

The second person who supported QuEST was Gairik Ghosh, an independent People CMM® consultant. In addition to being a model expert, he was also what I call my “Drill Sergeant” who wielded the stick to make sure we stuck to the timelines.

My sincere appreciation to both these individuals.

Q:           Please do tell us about the key benefits experienced by QuEST. Were they in line with the original expectations? Better? Worse?

AP:          Most certainly our HR practices have become centered around each team member. ‘Employment’ is hardly something treasured by people these days. What people want is perpetual employability. If they are learning and growing, staying current, adding value, they are happy. If they know ‘how what they do everyday makes the organization grow?’ and ‘how it in turn helps them’, they are engaged with the organization.

People also need to know that ‘the organization means what it says’. People want to belong to the workplace, and I feel we have learnt how to create such a workplace. People are more engaged and happier. Managers are becoming leaders. Ad-hoc’ism has given way to systems and processes. Retention metrics have steadily been improving. Employee and Customer satisfaction scores are steadily improving. Of course, we have also achieved CMMI®- DEV maturity level 3 in our delivery processes to augment and leverage the systematic improvements in people processes. We are a people business. Many leaders say, ‘people are everything, people are an asset’ etc. but do not make investments in people like QuEST has done. Got to mean what you say. Mature delivery-cum-people processes is a formidable combination and all the stakeholders see and experience the benefit of it.

Let me put it this way “Even as people-dependence of the organization has reduced, we have far more dependable people in the organization now!”

SK:         Two in my view. One, we built a strong HR foundation addressing processes which we did not have before we implemented the model. Secondly, while we had many  processes, we did not necessarily have robust measurements and verifications for each. The model helped establish those in a systematic manner. These were in lines with our aim to build good, scalable and robust people practices within QuEST.

I believe these changes are for the better. I would not mind putting my money on that.

Q:           What kind of organizational transformations did you observe during this journey?

AP:          Many, all good. We are much better and stronger in communication to team members at all levels. People are much better aligned to the organizational goals and engaged with the organization. People see much better correlation between what we say and what we do. We are much more quantitative and hence fair and equitable with performance management, compensation, and rewards – people see that and appreciate it. Managers at all levels have scaled up and our leadership pipeline is getting loaded to shoulder the responsibilities of the growing organization. People development is seen as everyone’s responsibility and each is serious about it.

SK:         Today, “competency” seems to be part of the QuEST dictionary. Words like QCA (QuEST Competency Assessment) and CDC (Competency Development Council) seem part of QuEST vocabulary now!

It was interesting to see the change in perception of the Process Owners, Managers and employees. People CMM® was initially perceived as “HR’s Baby”. However as we progressed along the journey, the process owners could see the big picture and were completely convinced that model is all about themselves, their people, their processes and their engagement with the organization.

Today, the maturity of various processes has improved tremendously. Not just by perception but measuring effectiveness actually shows the positive movement we have made. Decision making has cascaded down and cycle time for important processes has improved.

Another advantage I see is that we have also become more confident of replicating these processes globally. Global customer groups who visit us are always impressed with the depth and details that our HR processes have.

Q:           Could you relate some interesting incidents (related to the initiative) that happened during this period?

AP:          Despite all efforts to groom and keep a stable list of trained ATMs, we kept having some turnover of the ATMs up until the day before the final appraisal was to start.

While I know it put stress on Sonia and her team, it brings to the fore the nature of our business – a people business. Unlike a machine, which you can be sure you will find it where you left off the previous evening, with people,  you never know. People have many responsibilities and demands on their time. To put together a robust people business is not trivial.

SK:          I am really bad when it comes to recalling incidents! However I will relate one incident that I found amusing.

As I shared before, in QuEST we have a strong orientation towards forming CFTs and working in teams.  Whenever we have asked for volunteers for the different process areas, one area that got the maximum number of volunteers was Participatory Culture. Employees often misjudged this to have something to do with having teams formed and doing (fun) things together. It is only when detailed information was provided on the process area they understood that it dealt with the very serious aspects of Delegation and Authority. This then became the process area with the least number of volunteers! Talking of misnomers, this sure is one!

Q:           Many people/ experts say that the People CMM® is suitable only for IT companies. Your comments/ experience in implementing People CMM® in an engineering organization.

AP:         Absolutely not true. People CMM® is good for any people-business. The concepts are universal. Of course, it has been implemented by many IT companies and techniques have become more widespread, shall we say, ‘common knowledge’. Implementing People CMM® in Engineering Services organization is not ‘common knowledge’.

People CMM® in IT is like climbing Mt. Everest. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it will take you to the top of the world. But, it is crowded up there. Everybody is there. People know the routes. People grab the ropes and ladders left behind by previous climbers. The Sherpas who accompany the climbers have been on top 10 times before.

While mountain climbing techniques and skills are same, People CMM® in Engineering Services is like climbing one of those peaks that no one has ever been on top of. Our People CMM® journey was not a simple journey, but an adventure.  A lot of people worked tirelessly to create significant intangible assets for the company that will differentiate us.

SK:       Being an HR professional I believe that in principle the concepts of people related systems remain the same. Some processes may vary, a flowchart may differ but the underlying philosophy is the same. Managing people affairs is a lot about common sense, something which unfortunately is not very common.

Moreover, I have seen the model to work from a guideline perspective rather than being prescriptive. It is like a four line book my daughter uses. The four lines provide the framework, how you write (whether thick or thin, light or dark, straight or slanting) is left to you.

Q:           What were the key differences between the People CMM® initiative and some other HR oriented initiatives that you have taken in the past?

AP:          Well, HR is always touchy-feely stuff. While People CMM® framework ensures these things happen, and gives significant flexibility in what we want to do on touchy-feely, it insists on reducing it to numbers! Finally, engineers in QuEST can understand HR 🙂 .

SK:          When I think about it, I would say magnitude and complexity. Both because of the number of areas to be covered and from the fact that so many different departments and hence people are involved. In QuEST we believe in Team Work to be a Core Value for us. An initiative like P CMM® tests and proves that out for all to see.

Q:           How do you plan to sustain, change and improve?

AP:          All stakeholders keep expecting more – be it customers or employees. To me this is progress and development. Annual employee-engagement survey is something we look forward to analyzing and learning from. A lot of interesting areas of improvement and ideas come out of this process. This keeps us on our toes for the rest of the year. Our ambition to grow, intense desire of our teams to explore and excel in new areas of business will keep challenging our systems to continually develop. We look forward to benchmark with best-employers within and outside our industry and also are looking to adopt a business excellence model. All these will keep us under pressure to evolve.

SK:          We go back a long way since we started this journey. A positive outcome of this extended effort is that a whole lot of aspects have got institutionalized and become part of the working rhythm. Hence QCAs, audits, effectiveness measures have become part and parcel of the work area. This is good as it helps sustain the efforts that we put in.

We continue to follow the same rhythm for different process areas which was established while establishing the model.

As we grow and are faced with the changing realities, I am sure that it will call for changes and improvement. What I am confident is that our understanding of the model will help us accommodate and implement those changes in a more efficient manner.

Q:           Is there anything you would like to tell/ convey to the readers?

Ajay Photo 2AP:         If you want to do something, stick to it and get it done. “Flavor-of-the-month” approach does not pay. Be consistent between what you say, mean, and do. If people are an asset, invest in them. If it is difficult, do it just because it is difficult. How else would you differentiate yourself in a crowded market?Sonia Photo 3

SK:         I suppose I have already said it all! For all those who would like to start off on this journey, my advice would be to consult with an expert and preferably have that person/ firm guide you on a continuous basis. Secondly, dedicate an internal resource to manage this initiative like a project.

While it can seem like a tedious and long drawn process, the benefits far outweigh the trials involved. All the Best!

Ajay Prabhu may be contacted at Ajay tweets @AjayPrabhuQuEST. His LinkedIn page is here.

Sonia Kutty may be contacted at Her LinkedIn page is here.

Thank you, Ajay and Sonia, for sharing your experiences and insights!

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The views presented above represent the personal views of Ajay Prabhu and Sonia Kutty and are in no manner reflective of the official views of QuEST, or AlignMentor or any other organization, community, group, or association.

I am Rajesh Naik. I am an author, management consultant and trainer, helping IT and other tech companies improve their processes and performance. I also specialize in CMMI® (DEV and SVC), People CMM® and Balanced Scorecard. I am a CMMI Institute certified/ authorized Instructor and Lead Appraiser for CMMI® and People CMM®. I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. For more information please click here.

9 thoughts on “Interview: Ajay Prabhu (COO) and Sonia Kutty (GM-HR) of QuEST share their experience of implementing People CMM® in an engineering organization”

  1. Ajay, Sonia,

    Very elaborate insights into your organization and journey. This insight increases my admiration for your organization. Additionally, I can sense that you have clearly stayed away from the pitfall that some times organizations face when chasing a level irrespective of other considerations.

    Best wishes


  2. Loved the manner in which Ajay and Sonia shared their experiences. Interesting read and provided practical views on what can be achieved when the model concepts are understood and applied appropriate to the business context.

    And having been associated with QuEST, it is easy to visualize them applying a “well thought through engineering approach” to People practices using the PCMM framework.


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