In a world full of standards, why are we sub-standard?

Thursday, 14 March 2013 00:29 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As we have moved on with varying degrees of societal development models, from conquering each other to democracies with different practicing models, the observable qualities of processes and systems differ widely.

Economists simplify by allocating countries to specific categories from developed, developing to less developed, etc. Each of these classifications carries some basic home truths with regard to the country under discussion. Achieving uniformity that had brought in quality, convenience and interoperability mean a higher degree of standardisation in elements that constitute the national matrix.

The global body – the ISO – had its beginning on 23 February 1947. When the global standards body came into being, the mandate had been to drive standardisation as a voluntary activity. The ISO was not to be an acronym in any official language as what the people usually immediately tend to imagine and it represents International Organization for Standardization.

Though comments to the contrary exist, the ISO stemming from the Greek word ‘isos’ signifying ‘equal’ is interesting as it conveys a basic goal – driving sameness across! The meaning comes out in words such as isotherm (equal temperature) and isobars (equal pressure), etc. Hence when an organisation in Canada carries an ISO 9000 certification, one in Sri Lanka having the same immediately should confer to a listener or a potential customer that there are strong commonalities in all functional aspects of the two entities though the physical existence of one is in a developed economy and the other in a developing economy.

Today the world celebrates World Standards Day in October every year. ISO works together with two other organisations – the International Electro Technical Commission and the International Telecommunication Union – in realising practical solutions to economic, environmental and societal solutions via standardisation.


Non-adherence to some basic standards

One aspect that stands out in developing countries is the non-adherence to some basic standards. As an example for the incoming visitor a country may state that the standard voltage is 240V and the socket type is of a particular design. However, we may have all sorts of plug bases installed trying to satisfy all incoming models rather than stating standards and instilling some discipline. Yes it would be nice if there is a global standard for voltages and plug bases; maybe that is the next stage!

There is a delay in taking in some of the learnings of the standardisation process. The standards community has been really busy and we have more than 19,500 global standards to digest and learn from. They do represent good practices and represent many years of hard work and accumulated learnings. Why don’t we read some and adopt what is available in a meaningful way?

While honeybees world over have the same honeycomb design, we humans may like the creative touch of having some difference. Creativity is important and with it hopefully some progress too does occur. The issue at times is that we aren’t creative in areas we should be and must standardise in areas that lives become easier. Being inventive to be confusing is not what citizens want. We know the convenience when we seamlessly integrate in communications and in banking and hardly acknowledge the role of standards.


Beacons in progress

It is time standards serve as beacons in progress for developing communities. As middle class rises and thereby consumption, system standards such as ISO14000, energy standards such as ISO50001 and social standards such as ISO 26000 are really useful in setting comfortable organisational settings.

The value at times has been brought down to the reach of children. Late Prof. Takaya Kawabe of Japan developed and launched the Kids’ ISO 14000 program as he was a strong believer in environmental education of children and young people being a key to solving global environmental problems and achieving sustainable development.

What Prof. Kawabe demonstrated was innovative adaptation of a standard and taking the message to an important stakeholder community, which perhaps the standards bodies usually ignore. Such enterprising and responsible approaches show the potential of benefitting from existing standards and realising new heights. We all can do that and the available base for innovative adaptation is enormous.

Mars orbiter miscalculation

The process has not been smooth and countries in developed groupings too have seen some drastic events due to non adherence to standards. A classic example is what happened to the US Mars climate orbiter, which vanished on September 1999. The orbiter had burned upon entry to the atmosphere of Mars, which had been due to a miscalculation. The error had been now traced to a mix-up of English and metric units between the orbiter’s operator, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Pasadena, California, and the contractor that built it, Lockheed Martin Corporation of Bethesda, Maryland.

The simple issue thus had been two institute communications missing any exchange of ideas on units used. They have carried out the entire project phase without noticing the difference while one party had assumed SI units, the other had done all its work thinking in English units. The end result was quite shocking with a 165 million dollar loss. When the unit was released over Mars, it had been based on wrong calculation and the released height had been different and in such harsh environments, these do matter.

What the NASA incident demonstrated was the need to adhere to standards and SI units became a norm within NASA activities thereafter. What a costly way to realise standards even in an economy after conquering the moon at an earlier date. The lesson should not be lost on developed countries such as ours.


Sri Lanka

ISO documents are not available for free. The focal point in Sri Lanka is the Sri Lanka Standards Institute. In some cases the SLSI had adopted global documents and published them as SLSI documentation, in which cases the cost of purchasing is much lower. International standards result from collaborative efforts of experts from many countries working together and as such reflect accumulated experience and learning. The local adaptation makes available the same content at a lower price level. We however still shy away from such investments and improvements via group learning.

The documents offer a rich source of information and small and medium scale organisations can learn a lot through devouring this information. We must understand that standards have the ability to deliver practical and cost effective solutions and if we believe otherwise, waste is what we may finally realise. This is the efficiency that we miss in developing economies and what I have termed as sub-standard behaviour while standards exist to show us a better direction.


ISO 20121:2012

It is not a secret that in Sri Lanka we do have many events. We move from one to another with a dexterity that perhaps defies even developed economies. Our events are grand and managed well. However we must always understand these events are significant consumers of resources. ISO has served this area as well thus showing the breadth of ISO activities.

ISO 20121:2012 is all about event sustainability management system. An example quoted for the best use of the guide is the 2012 EU presidency. The standard had been applied to 100 meetings involving three locations and some 15,000 participants and the cost of the 2012 presidency had been a fraction of the cost of past presidencies. If the EU can seek certification on such practices, why don’t we drive such practices as our costs in resources and time are enormous in these grand events and going sustainable will mean a lot?


Numbers speak volumes

It may be important if one carries out a simple analysis of what we do internally and relate them to practicing standards with existing global standards. Numbers speak volumes. While ISO identifies 19500 standards, Sri Lanka speaks of 1400 standards in place. There is obviously a gap, though we may not immediately need to adopt or engage in developments of standards with respect to space debris as happening at international level.

The process of standard setting is to a large extent a reactive scheme as local focal points may plan through the usual budgeting process and take on submissions made by others to develop the next year’s work plans. While the vision is clear, there is no internal mechanism to identify and develop standards other than some key targets for sections or divisions. A proactive approach is in order.

As standards development process is not a cash generating exercise but an expenditure, moving in rapidly in filling gaps requires institutional support from the State. It is the State that should understand the development of standards can drive quality of life in our economy. It is high time that we move on from a sub-standard system to a one of standards led!

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on

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