Standardisation – An imperative for a country’s progress

Wednesday, 13 October 2010 22:41 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Sunil G. Wijesinha

The Great Baltimore Fire

The great Baltimore fire of 7th February 1904 is often cited as the tipping point which very forcefully brought out the need for national standardisation in the US.

At 10.40 that morning a fire broke out in the basement of the John E Hurst building in Baltimore.

Within 10 minutes an explosion spread the fire to the neighbouring buildings. The flames spread quickly, devouring building after building. Buildings which were believed to be “completely fireproof” were in flames.

The fire was out of control within one hour and the heat was so intense that concrete structures seemed to burst in flames. The fire chief desperately wired Washington for help, and fire engines with firemen were loaded onto a special train from Washington and arrived in record time.

The crowds cheered the arrival of the first fire engines from Washington expecting the fire to be soon put out, but their expectations were short lived. To their dismay, the firemen realised that their hoses did not fit the Baltimore hydrants. An SOS had been sent simultaneously to surrounding areas as well, and soon fire engines were arriving from New York, Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Annapolis.

All they could do was watch helplessly as none of their hoses would fit. After 30 hours the fire burned out, but not before having destroyed 70 blocks, with all bank and insurance companies burned out, and all retail and wholesale businesses completely destroyed.

There was no scarcity of water, and according to the fire department they had enough water and enough fire engines and firemen to have flooded the entire district “...if only the nozzles would have fitted”.

Subsequently a commission of investigations discovered that there were 600 different sizes and varieties of fire hose couplings in the entire United States! For a quarter century before, the National Board of Fire Underwriters had been campaigning for standardised couplings but with very little support. The famous Baltimore fire was the eye opener and soon afterwards a standard was introduced.

Frustrating lack of standards

All of us have been frustrated by the lack of standards when we travel to other countries, because plugs don’t fit. While there are adapters available in the market, none will work in South Africa which has only 15 amp plug bases.

Some countries like Japan and US have a different voltage and your electrical appliances would not work, and your roaming phone will not work in Japan. How convenient it would be if we had mobile phone charges that would fit any phone, and if any memory card would fit any camera, and all countries used the metric system. When you travel to the US and the temperature is indicated in Fahrenheit, it is impossible to remember the conversion we learnt in school.

Recently I discovered that the test results of some medical tests I had been doing in the past had a pattern. Results of one laboratory always showed a higher reading than the results of the other. My doctor advised me that this is quite common, and that I should always go to the same laboratory. Is this acceptable?

In a Western country if you see a motorist flashing his headlights it is a signal which means that he is giving way for you to proceed. According to one guidebook written by some American ladies, it means the opposite in Sri Lanka; it means as stated in the book, “I am coming through whatever happens, so get out of my way”.

Again, in Sri Lanka the hazard warning light (when both your left and right turn indicators blink at the same time) is not to warn other motorists of a danger, but to signal that you are going straight at the four way junction. With more foreigners coming here and with the Government inviting more foreign companies to set up here, wouldn’t it be confusing if we do not conform to internationally accepted signals?

Early standards

Over 20,000 years ago our ice age ancestors kept track of days by making marks on rocks. 5,000 years ago the Sumerian farmer used a calendar which divided the year into 30 day months and the day into 12 hours and an hour into 30 minutes. In 4236 BC the Egyptians created the 356 day calendar.

In more recent history, the advent of trade and commerce created a need for standard weights and measures. When the Greeks introduced the standard Foot it was the size of Hercules’ foot. The Roman specified a mile as a 1,000 paces. In England the Saxon yard was believed to be the girth of a man, but seeing that this varied considerably, Henry I specified that a yard would be equal to the length of his arm.

After the rapid industrialisation following the Industrial Revolution of the early 19th century, the necessity for national product standards became a necessity. The large number of boiler explosions resulted in the establishment of standards for boilers.

Railroads was another example of a lack of standards which created delays by workmen having to change the wheels when trains had to connect to different lines with different widths or passengers had to get off and board another train. In 1886 a major exercise was undertaken in the US to have the same gauge of track throughout the country.

However it is more recently, in the latter part of the 19th century, that standards and standardisation became more popular and widespread.

Eli Whitney’s interchangeable standard parts

Military campaigns have always resulted in standards and uniformity. Substantial improvements of productivity in manufacturing have been realised by establishing standards for armaments and military supplies.

Eli Whitney was famous for the invention of the cotton gin, which revolutionised the textile industry. He is also considered a pioneer in the history of standardisation as the inventor of the concept of “standard interchangeable parts”.

Muskets were expensive because the firing device was made up of several small moving parts. These parts were individually crafted by hand by gunsmiths and therefore no two guns were the same. In fact each one was an individual “masterpiece” and even of a slightly different length. Since the gunsmith had to make them one at a time, the process was very time consuming and expensive.

The American War Department was requiring larger quantities of muskets than that could be produced by skilled gunsmiths. In 1800, Eli Whitney declared that he had the solution; a system for producing standardised small parts that could be produced by unskilled workers by casting, and thereby assemble them with other interchangeable standard parts.

Whitney’s idea was to make these parts so precise that they could fit with any other part. He appeared before a congressional committee with 10 sample muskets constructed from interchangeable parts, then disassembled them, shuffled the components, and reassembled ten muskets once again with different parts. The congressmen were impressed and awarded him a contract to make 10,000 muskets.

Standardisation and productivity

Today, many products are affordable to a larger segment of the population because they are mass produced with relatively less skilled workers. Mass production would not have been possible without standardisation of components. It is the enhancement of productivity that has enabled people to enjoy a better standard of living.

Although Sri Lanka adopted the metric system in the 1970s the progress of standardisation could have been faster. The public has not been very supportive. I remember the hue and cry when the standardised calendar was introduced with the week starting from Monday when hitherto all calendars had Sunday as the starting day.

The calendar printers objected, but today all calendars conform to the international standard. The Sri Lanka Standards Institution (SLSI) has been striving very hard to promote standards and has published many standards for products. Many more Sri Lanka standards are needed.  The SLSI has still not been able to get all the Government institutions to adopt the standard date and time formats, and to use the international standards for units and currencies. Even the national currency is written in different forms such as Rs, LKR, Rp, SLR, etc. The correct standard acronym is LKR while the Indian Rupee is INR.

Sri Lankan enterprises are quite advanced in implementing the Japanese 5S system. The fourth step in 5S is standardisation. It calls for standards in names, items, colour codes, labels, office and factory procedures, quality procedures and even documentation.

Everyone agrees that standardisation eliminates confusion, enhances quality, productivity and safety, and ensures unambiguous correspondence. In my company we have standards for almost everything. This includes the standard font and font size for all correspondence, standard formats for all memos, faxes, reports, board papers etc, and standard date and time formats. All letters and reports have standard margins, and all tables and charts prepared are according to set standards.

Every letter that goes out of the company from whatever division uses the same font and font size with the same standard format. Dealing with over 20 countries in shipments and supplies and dealing with a huge variety of shapes and sizes of products it would have been a nightmare without standards.

While the SLSI should be congratulated for the large number of standards that have been introduced, it should take the concept of standardisation more forcefully and insist that as a first step all Government institutions adopt standard date and time formats.

The private sector too should be further encouraged to follow international standards. We need a higher level of ‘standard consciousness’. This no doubt will be a challenge in a country where the name boards on the two ends of the same road have different spelling!

(Sunil G. Wijesinha is Chairman and Managing Director, Dankotuwa Porcelain PLC. He is a pioneer in promoting Japanese management techniques such as Quality Circles and 5S in Sri Lanka and Awardee of the Asia Pacific Regional Award for Productivity by the Asian Productivity Organisation. He is also a former member of the Board of SLSI and a member of the ISO committee.)