Intelligence and capability are not enough. There must be the joy of doing something beautiful.
Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy (also known as Dr. V), the pioneering, inspiring architect of the Aravind Eye Care System, was a determined and brave man. From a small 11-bed clinic in Madurai, India in 1976 to a chain of institutions with more than 3,200 beds and dedicated staff that by 2010 were performing 300,000 eye surgeries a year (the majority of them free, for the poor), Infinite Vision is a moving account of the evolution of this organization – and the commendable spirit of one man – that rippled through everyone he met.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve read about Aravind Eye Hospital multiple times – but no account has been as detailed and insightful as this. A few weeks ago, for example, I was reading ‘The Innovator’s Cookbook’, edited by Steven B. Johnson, a collection of essays on innovation. Aravind popped up in two instances: once in a chapter on disruptive management practices from Asia authored by John Seely Brown and John Hagel III, and again in an interview Steven conducted with Tom Kelley, the general manager of IDEO, who cites Dr. V’s desire to build the ‘McDonald’s of healthcare’ back in the ‘70’s as a great example of the cross-pollination of ideas.
Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO, visited Aravind in 2005. In a quote from the book, he said:
“What I saw in India, and particularly at Aravind, played a big part in how I’ve moved forward with IDEO.
Innovation, in some fundamental way, is linked to constraints, and Aravind is an organization that operates within a very unique set of self-imposed constraints. That automatically eliminates ordinary solutions.”
The organization has been a case study at Harvard Business School for 17 years, and is a recipient of many awards, including the 2010 Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
Since the 1980’s, Aravind has had hospitals in other areas across India, including one in my hometown in South India, Coimbatore – one of the many reasons I am fairly familiar with the name.
Aravind is an excellent case study in complex systems engineering: more than once during my reading of the book I stopped to marvel at how so many levers were smoothly pulled at once, and not just once but repeatedly, every year. Aravind now has a number of linked institutions that assist it to carry out its work, including an eye research institute, an intra-ocular lens manufacturing unit and a training and consultancy offshoot. Its journey to where it is today has been fraught with a few organisational issues, as one would expect, but the team driving the philosophy and the work have rallied together in all matters from hiring the right kind of people to expanding Aravind in ways that did not detract from its original aim: to provide eye care at ‘high-volume, high-quality and affordable cost’; to provide ‘sight for all’ in a country of 12 million blind.
Spirituality is an important part of the story: not just that of Dr. V but of almost everyone who is part of Aravind.
I found it refreshingly honest when Professor Kasturi Rangan, the author of the Harvard case study, admitted in the book that his colleagues suggested he remove the bits that were too ‘spiritual’ (he eventually didn’t, as he felt that thread was too important). After you finish the book you see why he, as well as the authors, have devoted so much of the story to it: Dr.V’s spirituality leaves a trace on almost every page, and is crucial to the Aravind ethos.
From Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus to Jacqueline Novogratz of the Acumen Fund, people have been touched and inspired by what Aravind has achieved. But no one as much as the people who have gained the gift of sight thanks to the dream of one man, affected with rheumatoid arthritis, who went on to successfully operate on thousands of people.
I wept as I reached the last few pages.
Pavithra Krishnan Mehta, one of the authors of the book, is a grand-niece of Dr. V, and provides an insider’s perspective that adds immense value. With co-author Suchitra Shenoy, Infinite Vision becomes a narrative that is as engaging to read as it is evocative.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Pavithra is a friend from university, though I haven’t seen her in years. I can think of no better person to have written this story, and it is a story that needed to be told.
Sitting in my little flat in London, Madurai has never felt so close.