Jul 31, 2008

Business - Hidden Horrors

A few days ago I got up to do an act which I’ve done, oh, tens of thousands of times before, without wasting a second thought on whether I would end up badly hurt or even dead – I opened the bathroom door of the new high-rise flat that we ’d moved into just the day before. As I was about to step in, there was this huge whooshing sound and in front of my horrified eyes, a cascade of boiling hot water gushed out of the water heater. It took more than 15 minutes for the steam to clear up, before it was safe to examine the cause. It took us more than a few days to recover from the shock and the relief that none of us had been inside at the time.
Subsequent enquiries told us that the water heater was new and in perfect condition. The flaw was in the outlet pipe: instead of using a pipe made of stronger material to withstand the pressure of the hot water an ordinary rubber tubing had been used. The building supervisor blamed the interior designer. The interior designer pointed his finger at the plumber for lacking knowledge. I haven’t dashed off my usual complaint letter to the manufacturer as yet – but when I checked, the instruction manual of the water heater gives a bland instruction to use “approved material”, with nary a caveat on the safety precautions to be employed in buildings that are more than a couple of storeys high. It is very likely that this well-known brand (and its manual) is not even manufactured in-house and has been outsourced to a low-cost provider.
Who is really to blame here? The plumber who in all probability lacks an appropriate technical qualification? The interior designer who delegated the task to such a man? The builders who have no quality control check on whether each flat’s heaters comply with the pressure specifications demanded in high-rises? Or the manufacturers of the water heater who clearly sees their role as complete with the sale of the product and seems either unaware – or worse, unconcerned - that there could be situations where its heaters become potential weapons of destruction.
Paul Graham made this comment in an article that explored the wider ecosystem that fostered the creation of start-ups in America. “In poor countries, things we take for granted are missing. A friend of mine visiting India sprained her ankle falling down the steps in a railway station. When she turned to see what had happened, she found the steps were all different heights. In industrialised countries we walk down steps our whole lives and never think about this, because there’s an infrastructure that prevents such a staircase from being built.” Graham went on to comment that the problem with “India itself is that it’s still so poor”.
I don’t believe that poverty can be used as an alibi for shoddy quality – not when there are glitzy malls and luxury brands at every corner and when we see ourselves on the way to becoming an economic superpower. The malaise is not poverty, it is an indifference to excellence and a shedding of responsibility at both the individual and the systemic level. If each process-owner at each stage in the supply chain fulfilled the role with a commitment to quality and excellence, we would see a seamless delivery of high quality products and services. However, that is probably too idealistic an expectation involving a nationwide change in mindset to an approach that values self-assessment, perfectionism and self-correction.
However, Graham has a point about the missing infrastructure - the real problem lies with the lack of an effective system of checks and balances and damages that needs to be institutionalised if Indian product safety standards are to become world-class. Would things have been different if we had had mandatory inspections by a government body to see that the right quality of materials is used? Or would that merely introduce another layer of bureaucracy and corruption?
More importantly, it would help if we had stringently enforced strict liability clauses on product damages. If there was fear of a lawsuit that could result in bankruptcy, the water-heater debacle would never have happened. In all likelihood, the fault would be found to lie with the manufacturer, not for a defective product, but for defective marketing – for selling the heater with insufficient instructions, for not insisting that it be installed by certified, company-approved plumbers and for not warning the consumer about the hidden danger. (Of course, this also needs a speedy system for trial, in which we are still well behind the West.)
Designing and enforcing product liability policy is tricky, and needs to strike a balance between competing goals. On one hand, companies that fail to ensure consumer safety definitely need to be penalised. On the other hand, too much litigation can stifle innovation, make manufacturers go in for over-engineered products, and increase overall costs. Countries such as the US are still struggling to find an answer, but we do have enough data from other markets to help us formulate what India should do.
Last time I had bemoaned the lack of quality and consistency in so many Indian service industries. False deadlines and process glitches seem minor gripes when we consider the hidden horrors that lurk unseen in product-service situations where the responsibility for safety has slid between the cracks. Imagine how fraught our lives would be if the same sloppy attention to detail existed every time multiple providers combined to create an offering where the cost could be human lives – every time an airplane flew, or a bridge was built. If I choose to kayak down the Congo alone, that could be termed risk-taking behaviour – the concept of risk or danger should not be something that crosses the mind when turning a water heater on. As consumers we often place ourselves unknowingly in risky situations and it is time we were protected from potentially disastrous results. Until our economy matures sufficiently to have such an infrastructure in place, I’ll just have to wander around like Chicken Little, casting nervous glances about me, wondering when something will fall on my head.
(Radhika Chadha is a consultant in strategy and innovation and co-author of Innovative India: Insights for the Thinking Manager.

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