Technology and World Leadership
Standards play a role during both war and peacetime
by Dale K. Gordon
This month's column will be a bit unusual in that it does not look forward so much as look back. I am writing as the conflict in Iraq is winding down and the considerable military might of the United States and other coalition forces was able to bring down the regime of a despot in the Middle East.
Whether this was a correct use of force is not a debate for this column, but rather the column reflects on how the developed world, and the United States, in particular, have the technological ability and resources to extend their influence globally. It certainly takes great leadership, but it also takes great capabilities in manpower, materials and manufacturing.
My daughter has acquired a taste for history in addition to her other scholastic interests. This is the same interest I enjoy--reading and understanding how societies and civilization have changed, progressed and, in some cases, regressed throughout the ages. Last Christmas she gave me a book by the late Steven E. Ambrose, a noted historian and a prolific writer about American history.1
While Ambrose typically wrote about significant events and historical leaders, in this particular book he sums up his research and other facts and events related to American leaders. So what does this have to do with standards, you ask?
As I read this book and was simultaneously attuned to world events, I realized how the confluence of technology and political events has changed modern politics and the ability of nations to project their ideas well beyond their borders. The book also shows the role standardization has played in this ability.
The American Civil War in the mid-1800s and the birth of the industrial revolution a short time later heralded the beginning of nations using technological and industrial might to impose their will (in some cases, particularly with Germany and Japan in the mid-20th century, to impose domination). I am sure some historians would argue this has been true since man made sharp tools or discovered metals.
Quality and Warfare
In his book, Ambrose wrote about the great advances in technology of the late 19th century and how this technology quickly advanced the state of weaponry and gave rise to nations with power based on industrial might. In World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt even talked about the United States being the "arsenal of democracy."
It's interesting to look at these advancements in technology and standardization in terms of war and its resulting carnage. In the American Civil War, more than a million Americans were killed; in World War I, 118,500; in World War II, 405,000; in Korea, 33,000; and in Vietnam, 46,000. The numbers are significantly smaller and the conflicts (thankfully) shorter for the Persian Gulf War of 1990 and the recent military actions in Iraq.
The quality of munitions and weapon systems prior to and during World War II was not wholly reliable, and any shortcomings were made up in volume. This dramatically changed during the course of the war. Germany knew it could not outproduce the Allies, so it adopted a quality philosophy in war production. German tanks, designed for serial development from a basic model, were of the highest quality, as were German small arms.
For example, the MP-40 submachine gun, known to Allied soldiers as the Schmeisser, was both the best of its kind in use by any army and one of the simplest to produce. German design engineers simplified its components so almost all could be produced by repetitive stamping. Only the bolt assembly and barrel had to be machined.
German secret weapons were also a testimony to the success of the quality philosophy. Although Germany's electronics industry failed to match the achievements of the British--who consistently produced better radar equipment of every sort and supplied the scientific and technological basis for American industry's advances in that field--and although Germany's nuclear weapons program was an abject failure, its success with pilotless weapons and advanced submarines was impressive.2
Most of the advances in manned flight (2003 being its 100th anniversary) have come from investments primarily funded by military activity. We can, however, credit the commercialization of this technology with the ability to bring people together and export products and ideas quickly and efficiently around the globe.
We are able to work harder, smarter and more effectively because of great advances in technology that are significantly improving worldwide living standards. Not only are diets, medicines and engineering vastly better, but we can distribute these advances globally. In fact, understanding of human events and global communication are improving faster than during any other era in human history.
This ability to spread the means of improving living standards has been achieved using some basic principles of standardization for developing railroads, distributing electricity, producing medicines and manufacturing products on modern assembly lines. Standards have also allowed the increases in manufacturing capability that are continuing to reduce the cost of most consumer products.
While the three standards for cellular phone technology have created some shortcomings in global telecommunications, we can still see digital images of anything anywhere on a real-time basis using these standards.
It's remarkable most of what we discuss in the "Standards Outlook" column are consensus standards--ones agreed on at a national or international level by global participation in a process dedicated to making commerce and human endeavors easier and more consistent.
ISO 9001, TS 16949, AS9100, TL 9000 and many other quality standards are the results of global efforts at rationalization of processes. Designed to be universally understood and applied, these standards ensure the organizations employing them continuously improve, thereby benefiting not only the organizations but humanity as well.
Throughout history, outstanding leaders and momentous decisions have shaped our world and the political environment in which we live today. But in the 20th century (and possibly into the 21st), the harnessing of technology and applications of industrial processes have brought the world together and made it a smaller place. Through standardization we are beginning to behave as unified peoples--using a common language not only in commerce but also in politics.
Standardization is not meant to stifle innovation or subvert progress. Quite the opposite, it is intended to remove variation in processes, which can cause failure, poor performance, and disagreements or friction between parties.
Developing and producing standards is not ignoble work, nor is it likely to be a major part of history. Standards won't bring fame and fortune to their creators. But the men and women involved in such efforts tend to view standards creation as a worthy and fulfilling endeavor benefiting a larger whole and a greater good.
We should, therefore, take time to recognize those who have spent countless hours of debate, consideration and analysis to develop what ultimately may be seen as no more than words on paper. Yet those words help guide, promote and stabilize large sectors of commerce and industry, and ultimately benefit mankind.
Standardization can create a common understanding among people not only from a customer satisfaction viewpoint, but also from a humanitarian perspective. It allows for mass communication as well as mass production. Standards enable advances in technology and the ability to use it, hopefully for a common good.
Standards are now reaching into the realm of social activities, environment, working conditions and the treatment of workers engaged in commerce. Perhaps someday we will have standards about the role of governments and the rights of people. In the United States we call that our Constitution.
Standardization is a language unto itself, but in the end the process is an agreement among people that standards should not only benefit users but should allow those who develop them to take satisfaction in their proper application.
1. Stephen E. Ambrose, To America, Simon & Schuster, 2002.
2. John Keegan, The Second World War, Viking Penguin, 1989.
DALE K. GORDON is director of quality methods for Rolls-Royce North America in Indianapolis. He is past chair of the American Aerospace Quality Group and was one of the writers of the AS9100 standard. Gordon earned a bachelor's degree in industrial engineering from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint, MI, and a master's degree in business administration from Butler University in Indianapolis.