SINGAPORE: The managing director of Tunity Technologies Lim Peck Hui truly believes in the power of technology to increase productivity, change lives and even influence human behaviour. She is part of the team behind a local hawker centre’s radio-frequency identification (RFID)-based tray-return system that’s been described as revolutionary in terms of influencing diners’ behaviour, resulting in a much cleaner environment.
Before starting Tunity, she was part of the pioneer team at ST Electronics that developed and implemented what could have been the world’s first fully integrated RFID National Library Board (NLB) management system, making borrowing and returning books and other material seamless.
Lim started Tunity in 2003 with three to five people and today has a staff strength of 25 – which may seem small, but which illustrates the beauty of technology, in being able to do more with less, she says.
Besides helping SMEs in Singapore, her team at Tunity has also taken part in many overseas projects, using RFID to facilitate processes in prisons in the Netherlands, Brunei and Malaysia and museums and conferences in other countries.
Lim went “On the Record” with Bharati Jagdish about the positive and negative aspects of technology, the limitations of technology to increase productivity, and how to truly achieve productivity by inculcating the “productivity DNA” in people.
She first explained how and why she went from being an arts graduate to a "technopreneur".
Lim Peck Hui: I started my career with the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), where I was a defence budget analyst. From there, I got to know operations. I got to see how MINDEF conducts their operations in a very productive way. Then I was roped in to be a productivity activist. A big part of that is about using technology to improve processes. When I moved into my next employment, I was given an opportunity to be a corporate planning and developing manager in ST Electronics. As a corporate plans officer, what I would do is to record minutes of meetings and do monthly reports. After some one to two months, I told myself: This is not going to be the case.
Bharati: Why not? What was wrong?
Lim: I got to go home at 5.30pm every day.
Bharati: Which is good, right?
Lim: In those days, we didn’t really think about work-life balance. It’s important. But at that point of my career, my thinking was that I must contribute to the organisation.
Bharati: You wanted to do more. You felt under-utilised.
Lim: Yes, I wanted to do more. I wanted to contribute more. How many reports can I write in a month? At the most, four a week. How many meetings can I record in a month? This was not what I wanted to (do).
So I went to the person who hired me and I said: “This is not very right. How can I go back at 5.30pm every day?” What happened was that my superior said: "Here are four strategic areas we need to look into. Choose one and go and develop it. That would keep you busy."
I looked at them. They were all technology areas. They were all wireless items or software-based – all invisible. Except one: RFID. At least, I can see a tag.
Bharati: You wanted something tangible.
Lim: Yes, yes, so that at least I can touch (it) if I don't understand what it is altogether. The next day, true enough, everything on RFID was on my table - research and enquiries from top management.
It was 1996. There was no Google yet, so we were using a very old-fashioned Starnet kind of system. You had to go to the library or go to the bookstore. The journey was not easy, but I persisted and continued. This is how technology has fed me for the last 21 years.
Bharati: What kept you in this field though?
Lim: I think it's a firm belief in myself that technology can help improve operations and productivity. One very good project was the NLB project. We were the pioneer team that did the library project from scratch, where we converted 10 million books from barcode to RFID. This was in my previous employment in ST Electronics. I personally witnessed it myself. The transformation journey was not easy at that time. A lot has to do with the belief and visionary leadership of people including my ex-president from ST Electronics. They influenced me to have confidence even though I am not an engineer. I really bulldozed through. When I saw the results, the savings, the savings in terms of time, the queuing time, the efficiency of data coming up from the system, it gave me that “Wah!” feeling, that it could really work. It was quite lucky I got that project to work on as a start. That gave me the confidence for the rest of the projects that I was doing. I continue to want to create another "Wah!" factor for my customers in today’s scenario, in today's era.
RUNNING A BUSINESS "NOT WHAT I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE"
Bharati: What made you want to start your own business? You could have just continued working for a large company, just doing project after project.
Lim: I think it's a bit of my personality. It’s the curiosity in me. I wanted to see how business is being done. As an employee, I could only do what was assigned to me. I wanted to learn how businesses can sustain themselves. When I left my employment in ST, and I started Tunity Technologies with the blessing of my bosses, it was a very tough journey. Fourteen years. It's not what I thought it would be.
Bharati: What did you think it would be?
Lim: Initially, I thought with my wealth of experience doing that project, and my good understanding of what the market needs, we can easily create sales and businesses. It was not so because in the outside world there are many other factors that are beyond our control.
Bharati: Give me some specific examples of the challenges.
Lim: Things like how you are being perceived. That's very important. Even though we know that we are good, our potential customers may not think that we are good. The company size was also a problem. The year was 2003. We started off with about three to five men. So you can tell people you are good, but how would people believe in you? Also, competitors out there see what you do, think it's lucrative, and do it also. So there are many, many things that make you worry when it comes to the challenges. So it does stress us out (a) lot. But it's a happy stress. We know that if we consistently do well we would reach somewhere. It's the faith in technology and the business.
Bharati: How did you overcome all these challenges?
Lim: I think I’ve got to regulate my mind a little and tell myself that even if they can copy my solutions, they can't copy my values and the way I handle my customer. It is with this that we slowly took one step at a time to grow the business. It's not very efficient though. Fourteen years to grow a business to my current size; I don't think that’s efficient. But every step we take, we learn a lesson. We become sharper in our judgement, sharper in our selection of resources, of partners.
Bharati: What was the growth strategy though?
Lim: When we first started, because our team was small, we could not take on too many projects. So we worked with the big boys, supporting them wholeheartedly as subcontractors. From there, we learnt about systems, we learnt about how services are to be rendered. Small steps at a time. Then you realise the big lessons or the most valuable ones are the painful ones.
Bharati: Tell me about some of the painful ones.
Lim: It was very painful. One time, we worked with the wrong partner and we almost needed to close down the business.
Bharati: What happened with this partner?
Lim: It was something that we didn't expect. We thought it was a good technology, a good solution, but for our partner, it seems there was more than what we could see. There were certain strategies the partner had that we did not know. They might have had their own agenda which until today, we do not know. They did not share with us. Things like that caught us in a surprise mode, because we didn't expect it. The project had to be stopped halfway, and we couldn’t get the money in although we had incurred a lot of resources over the one-year period we worked on it. But now, looking back, it actually gave me the drive to move on, and to build Tunity into a stronger company. We look at things from a different perspective; we reflect on it. At the end of the day, we must grow to be better, and move on from there.
DOES TECHNOLOGY BREED A CULTURE OF LAZINESS?
Bharati: We were chatting off-air earlier and you said that values play a big part in your business and even the projects you choose to undertake. Let’s talk about the tray-return system that you came up with for the hawker centre Timbre+. How do values come into play there?
Lim: When our customer Edward of Timbre+ came to see us, initially he was just talking about tagging the trays. We asked him why. Is there ROI (return on investment) in tracking trays? How much can a tray cost? Subsequently, he came back again and shared more with us and he said it's to incentivise people to return the trays. It was then that we realised that this is very meaningful, so let's explore further.
From there, we sparred over the solutions and came up with this whole system that meets the objective of returning trays by the general masses. We are very happy that we are participating in this act of changing the socio-cultural behavior of our general users at the hawker centers. I think it's one of the cleanest hawker centres we have visited so far.
Bharati: Some are of the view that if they are only returning their trays to get their deposit back, you’re not truly engendering personal responsibility.
Lim: If we didn’t do it, they may not return at all. That was the problem. With this, the hope is that it will eventually become a habit.
Bharati: But there’s a potentially negative aspect to technology too. We’ve had discussions on our radio show recently about whether we should we be drawing a line when it comes to using technology for certain functions that we currently do manually. For instance, should robots clear trays for people? Then there is the issue of autonomous cars. All this might make things more efficient, but can also breed a culture of laziness among humans and incapacitate us. What’s your stance on this?
Lim: Technology is supposed to improve lives, but you’ve got to know what is the objective of technology. You don't use technology for the sake of technology. I think for me, it is not a choice of which stance to take. Frankly, we do not have a choice. It is like time, even if you do nothing, time will pass. So whichever stance I take, technology will come. Whether it will incapacitate us, it will depend on how we use it, how responsible we are to our society and how disciplined we are to our own mental and physical development.
Maybe a new module will be taught soon: Technology humanities. Technology is innocent. If we use it wisely, it will give us good returns on investment. If we use it wrongly, it may harm others and harm ourselves. If we are wiser than technology, why should we allow it to incapacitate us and degenerate our future generations? When using technology, we need to consider the effects and we need to make sure we choose the right technology for our application. The considerations are not only the productivity aspects but also the perception in return. So does tray-return necessarily have to be done by robots? In the case of Timbre+, RFID technology is being used to promote responsibility and accountability; and indirectly self-service among humans.
INVESTING IN STAFF TO MAKE THEM RELEVANT AMID JOB LOSSES
Bharati: There have been concerns about job losses as a result of technology use. While in some areas, it is absolutely needed to up productivity because there’s a shortage of workers, we do see some people losing their jobs because of technology use in both the white and blue-collar sectors. How do you reconcile this with your values?
Lim: I think these are questions people need to ask themselves - what is the purpose of having technology in operations? Is it to do stuff you can't currently find people to do, or is it because you want a cheaper cost of operation? That is what the business owner needs to understand. Job losses - I think if it's good people you want to keep and retain and grow, then there shouldn't be any job losses. I understand some staff working in companies for a long time get complacent and they themselves do not contribute to the growth of the company and they take it for granted.
If the management employs technology to improve efficiency, that is the time this group would lose their jobs. We’ve got to take it in a positive light. The outcome has to be improved efficiency, revenue growth, profit growth, so that everybody is happy. Employees do different things, do higher value-added jobs, go for training to upgrade themselves. All these have got to be managed very differently. You’ve got to plan it out because I always feel that an employee is not a resource, like assets. It's a life. It is a precious life, the life that comes with you to join you, spend one-third of their lives in a day with the company.
You yourself, as a boss, must want to make a difference in his life. This is how I see my company. So I always tell myself, from the time they come in and the time they leave my company, there must be a positive delta. If not, I am not doing my job to groom them.
Sometimes as business owners, we are also helping to change human capital, the resources, to be better, so they can contribute even better at the next company they go to. It's our responsibility. I see it as a responsibility.
Bharati: A lot of companies don't though.
Lim: If they have no problems getting staff, then it might be okay. Although if you don’t develop your staff they are not likely to stay with you. For SMEs in particular, even attracting workers is a very challenging activity. So whoever comes by, we treasure them. When we treasure them we treat them differently, we want them to be productive, to be happy, to be positive when they are with us, so we see that as our responsibility. It's also the employees' responsibility to make sure they are sustainable as employees. You’ve got to know what you are good at, what you’re interested in, what the company needs are and go and get the proper training. That's why the Government is helping to give training grants. I always believe that employees have to play a part. If they sense that they can be replaced, they can suggest to their bosses: “Why don’t you let me do something else?”
Bharati: Do you still have problems getting staff as an SME?
Lim: Yes. Comparing two fresh grads, same results, same pay offered – if you are given a choice to work for Google or Tunity, who would you choose? It's a very realistic issue. We’ve got to attract the right people also.
Bharati: How do you do this right now? What is your strategy for getting talent?
Lim: We are very open with them in terms of what they can expect if they join Tunity. We tell them the good things, the bad things. We are also now moving forward and treating them like “entre-ployees”. They are not employees. They learn how a business is run, managed, they get to see everything. They are not focused on one narrow specific job scope. They get to see the whole process. That's how they learn. We give them the big picture. We also have to reward them well, to think of how to creatively be able to afford them and grow the business at the same time.
Bharati: How do you do this currently?
Lim: Through share options or a success fee.
Bharati: You said you tell them the good things and the bad things. What are some of the bad things?
Lim: Because we are small, sometimes they have to work through the night to get something out. Sometimes they have to face customers, even though they are engineers who have issues interacting socially. So this is when we train their confidence to interact with customers.
Bharati: You work with a lot of SMEs yourself, helping them adapt to technology. What are the challenges that remain in this arena?
Lim: First, the mindset has to be right. If they see the need to change, that’s good. The next problem is where to change, how to start changing, which vendor to use to help me change. In Singapore now, we have a lot of help from government agencies, a lot different packages. It’s good. But SMEs are a bit confused as well. You have a list of 20 to 30 vendors. Which one is good? Everyone would tell me theirs is good. Selection is an art. They have to try. But sometimes, because they don't know which one to choose, they end up staying put. They are worried that if they choose the wrong one, it would lead them in the wrong direction and outcome. This is a very valid concern, because for SMEs, the investment, though it's subsidised by Government, it is still an investment. They also have to put in the time and the manpower resources which are very limited in their case.
If you want to change, you really need to take a long-term position. You cannot do something now and expect it to work. Change needs time, so you need to go through this short-term pain, to clean up your records, to clean up your inventory, and things like that, to teach your people. Not many people can see this, because of their past baggage. They probably have seen and experienced failures using technology before, but it didn't work out. So that has caused some disturbance to their wish to move forward. They are stuck in the past. They know they need to move forward, but how to?
Bharati: What to do in a situation like that?
Lim: When we come in as vendors, we have to allay their fears, be with them, and sometimes not selling their solutions to them, give them the confidence that we are there for them. I think first we have to go in and understand their business operations, what they really need. Even if they understand and we share with them, it must be aligned with their own vision.
Bharati: There are many Government schemes to help SMEs and you said that while that’s good, SMEs are confused. So what do you think needs to be done to help?
Lim: Because of diversified business operations, even if the Government does something, it's not easy to implement. Maybe what would help is an objective checklist or a process flow checklist to help the business owner in the SME industry to understand what they need to know. Many a time, as a vendor, I need to put my head on the chopping block. We have to assure them that if anything goes wrong, we would be there for them, we cannot run away. We also must be very selective to choose the right customer. If it's something that we sense that won't work, we would rather tell them it's not suitable. We have walked away before. Maybe they don’t need RFID. Maybe a barcode is enough.
I think to help SMEs move to the next level, you’ve got to look at the SME themselves, the foundation of the business. Can the business grow? Is it a business with a good product that can scale? We’ve got to look at it from that angle. We can’t help for the sake of helping.
Bharati: So come to terms with the fact that even technology may not be able to help them.
Lim: Yes, it's very real. If there is someone who can point this out to them and they can embrace the criticism, comments, and advice, it would be better. But it's not easy.
Bharati: This landscape can be rather intimidating for SMEs – what types of technology should they use, what do they really need to further their businesses, how can it be applied well. How do you help them assess this?
Lim: That is one key point, we meet many business owners who say: We want to use RFID. But for what purpose? Do you have a need? We have even turned down some potential customers. You might want to use it thinking it would improve your productivity but when we look at the process, it will not. It won't change. So no point investing in technologies when your processes don't change. It doesn't bring you to the objectives that you want. For example, if you want to do stock-taking and you use RFID, you can read at a distance, you can read at a good speed, but the way you do stock-taking is still visual. Your people still will not be able to adapt to the technology, and they may still want to do it in a certain way. In that case, it won't help you. You’ve got to blend it with some process change.
SMES NEED TO WORK IN A MORE UNITED WAY
Bharati: On a macro scale, what would you say is needed to help them progress faster?
Lim: We need a more vibrant SME industry. I feel that we need to work in a more united way. I think unity is lacking in Singapore - that means SME and SME coming together, or SMEs in similar fields coming together to do projects together, pool their resources. Trust has to be there for it to work.
Bharati: Why is there no trust?
Lim: Over the years, their experience, how they have been played out by previous partners or collaboration parties, so it's about how to convince each other that you will be fine. It's like a marriage: You don't want to divorce, but you want to share the fruits together and enjoy the positive journey. That part is not easy.
Bharati: What have you done, or what do you plan to do in order to create that sort of environment. How do you plan to play your part?
Lim: We’ve started working with SMEs in areas we are good at. We can find complementary roles we can do together to serve the customer. So we have started to work on that. So I think there would be some multiplier effect, because they have their own network and we have our own network, so when we come together, our potential base of customers would be bigger.
Bharati: Actually, the Government is trying to encourage and facilitate this as well.
Lim: Yes, but it’s got to be managed very sensitively because of different business IPs and ideas. But if we can come together and be a stronger team, I think we can take on challenges in a different way. I am just saying this off the cuff, but I understand it is not easy to handle and to manage it to come up with something like that. But SMEs must be aware and try. SMEs should also have a bigger role in public projects, public tenders.
Bharati: You mean at this point they don't? SMEs are not often used for such things?
Lim: It’s starting to change, in the last one to two years, but it used to be that the public tenders were for the bigger organisations because of the financial risks and management. But I think a greater effort needs to be made to say: “This part of the project, I must get an SME to do.” Then maybe it would help.
THE PRODUCTIVITY DNA
Bharati: It says in your bio that you are passionate about productivity, solutions that increase productivity. Productivity growth in Singapore has been dismal over the years. A lot of these efforts to increase it on a national level, it seems, have not been working.
Lim: I think if there were no productivity movement, it would be worse. Already with it, we are at this level. If nobody cared about it, it would be even worse.
Bharati: But clearly what we have now is not adequate or effective. What do you think is wrong?
Lim: I think productivity must come from inside out. It is not driven from top. It must be internalised by our employees, by our resources. If you are one who doesn't believe in it, you would not do it in a productive way. For example we have a retiree working with us, and she is the most productive person I have seen. She always looks for ways to do things better, faster, more efficiently. This person has the productivity DNA in her. Workers today are too obsessed with pay, material things. They forget that they should do more for their employers in order to get those things. They have forgotten about internalising this DNA within themselves. If you have it, it would come very naturally. You don't need to send them for courses, if they have the mindset of "I have been doing this for the last three months. Is there a better way to do it better?"
This is lacking.
Bharati: You said they are obsessed with pay etc. What do you think needs to be done to reduce that sense of entitlement and make them focus on doing the job better?
Lim: I do not know whether this has to do with education or not. I think if you look at the syllabus in schools, there is no productivity subject.
Bharati: Do we really need a separate productivity module? Isn’t it more about how we are socialised, how we learn how to learn every day, in school and at work?
Lim: It's probably the way lessons are being conducted. The message isn't brought across to students. They don't see the need to be creative, to think of new solutions, because they only see the need in scoring high marks for their academic subjects. But hopefully, we can have this change in time to come when school syllabi are integrated more with the working industry. This is something that schools need to look into when they judge the students. Seeing is believing, let them experience the difference, and that could be a good way to start. It has to happen in school and at work. It's not easy. It takes time for us to have the productivity DNA in us. It's also based on our different experience.
For me, it's lucky that I was given the job to do it as a productivity activist. I saw it happening, therefore I believed in it. Not everyone has the same opportunity as me. So how to recreate this opportunity from school, at the workplace? We need to look into this. Fresh graduates also have to know that they must adapt. They cannot come in and expect to do things that were taught in school. They have to have a flexibility of the mind. We have to also do our part. We have to slowly prepare them, give them a bit to adapt each day each day, then open it up for them to grow.
Bharati: What or who has been your biggest influence over the years?
Lim: I think it's the good people and bad people. Good people, meaning supportive bosses. I was very lucky. I didn't work for many companies, only two, but I got to meet very good bosses who were very tolerant of my limitations, and who also gave me the opportunity to grow. They groomed me and exposed me to who I am today. So I am very grateful for that. I think when we first started, we had S$1 million paid-up capital. This was a big sum to me. I couldn't have saved so much if I were working. My first generation of shareholders, corporate investors gave me this. I always think I shouldn’t waste this. They are no longer with us, but still they gave us the seed to grow. I always tell myself when there are challenges, I can close down the business easily and get a job. But when I think of the S$1 million, it always stops me because I always think that I should turn it into many millions to benefit society by hiring people, growing them, grooming them, by developing good solutions to give to my customers, by helping my suppliers, helping them to sell better. My shareholders drive me to stay in the business even though it's tough sometimes. But so far, the journey has been very enriching to the mind, the journey.
Bharati: You said “the good people and the bad people”. What about the bad people?
Lim: Bad people, people who give me a lot of problems, a lot of difficulties until I thought of giving up, but it was that little drive in me that what can't kill me makes me tougher, that I want to be better. I also have to thank them for what they have done to me, to make me be a stronger person. So actually, it boils down to ourselves, how we regulate ourselves, how we perceive things, and how we want to improve our lives further, and make our own life experience a positive and happy one.