Standardisation imperative for progress
World Standards Day falls on October 14,
2010. To coincide, Sri Lanka launched the National Quality Week from
Monday, October 11, 2010 to Sunday October 17, 2010 to encourage
enterprises to focus on quality and standards and involve their
employees on quality improvement techniques and standards
The great Baltimore fire of February 7, 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.
should be aware of products standardisation. File photo
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.
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 standardization 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 ten sample muskets
constructed from interchangeable parts, then dis-assembled 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 the
same 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
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
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!
The writer is Chairman and Managing Director, Dankotuwa Porcelain PLC