Accuracy and Our Culture of Tolerance

Writer's Building in Calcutta: The seat of the state government; a place where I learnt an important lesson early in life

When I was a young man, which clearly was many decades ago, a senior IAS officer at Writers Building in Calcutta took a liking to me for some unknown reason. He would often call me to his office to talk about a whole lot of diverse issues. He introduced me to Jiddu Krishnamurti at a talk and was very pleased when I wrote about his lecture in a local newspaper. I would drop into his office every once in a while and he would bid me sit even if he had important visitors. I drank the excellent tea the peons would make those days for the secretaries to the government and listened to him expand on a new subject every time I visited. Although he spoke about diverse matters, he never once rambled or repeated himself; there was a precision in his conversation I particularly liked. He expounded on philosophical ideas with the same meticulousness as he would on subjects such as Bengal agriculture or trade unionism. I gradually began to comprehend that it was his attitude towards the world and everything in it that attracted me. He seemed to treat the trivial and the grave with the same amount of seriousness, care and even compassion. While he would talk he would sometimes flip quickly through an important file, sign it and tie it up. Once while handling some papers he pricked his finger on a pin that was sticking out; he flapped his hand and rang for the peon. When the peon appeared, the officer instead of upbraiding him patiently explained how a pin was supposed to be inserted to attach two or more papers; the important thing, he explained, was to ensure that the end of the pin did not stick out and was securely inserted behind the sheaf of papers. ‘It is a small thing but many people do not know it’, he said. ‘Everybody needs to be taught these things, even the simplest of things, but we neglect to do it and the next generation does not learn; systems degenerate’. Over the years I have often recalled what he said and when I had my own office I made it a point to teach every little thing I thought relevant to newcomers. Nothing is too small or unimportant, not even a pin. The lesson has stayed with me as have memories of the IAS officer who taught me the importance of small things.

The importance of that lesson has only grown in recent years as I watch in dismay a culture of callousness better known in north India as “laaparvayee” erode our work ethics. Everywhere I find little attention to detail; few people take pride in their work; many do not know proper work methods; most aim to somehow get the things done; and the execrable “jugaad” syndrome is turned into a virtue. We have become intolerant of contrary views but extremely tolerant towards how we do things. It is this “chalta hai” mindset that is at the bottom of the shoddy quality of a lot of work in India, be it repairing an aircraft engine, doing woodwork or writing a blog. There are several notable exceptions of course, of individuals and organisations that take great pride in what they do and how they do it but in general callousness rules.

A Starrett combination square. Accuracy must start somewhere so always buy the very best you can afford when it comes to measuring tools.

Sometimes this attitude can be the cause of fatal accidents. A lot of the crashes that take place in the Indian Air Force can be attributed to poor or deficient work culture and inadequate understanding of tolerances and accuracy. My uncle was an aeronautical engineer at the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) facilities in Kanpur where they used to service transport and other aircraft. I called him a few months ago hoping to find out which were the reliable Indian manufacturers of accurate measuring tools such as engineers squares, straightedges and parallel guides. When I told him of the kind of tolerances I was looking for, he laughed and said nobody in India talked about tolerances or levels of accuracy. He was curious that I should be looking for it in woodworking when it was not given much weight even in aeronautics. He said that all accurate measuring tools and instruments are imported, especially when critical applications are involved.

Observe these screws closely and you will find that the slots are not centred, which means these screws will be difficult to tighten. This is a sure sign of sloppy manufacturing and lack of quality control. I routinely throw away 10 to 20 per cent of screws bought locally.
I was disappointed but nevertheless bought several engineers squares and so on from supposedly reliable Indian manufacturers, and needless to say I was disappointed in most cases; it was a hit or miss affair. Finally I decided to import squares, measures and straightedges from the reputed US company Starrett.  I had by then realised that accuracy must start somewhere; there must be a reference point. I had to start with a square that has a miniscule deviation along its length and the same should be true of straightedges and rulers. Once I have a standard, my subsequent work or subsequent purchases could be referenced against these accurate tools.

Sukhoi 30-MKI, the best in the Indian Air Force. These machines are extremely high maintenance composite systems that will not accept any deviation from strict standards of quality and accuracy.

Today, I realise that a constant awareness of tolerances and accuracy in any kind of mechanical work is a mindset that has to be developed and nurtured. It needs to become an integral part of one’s work culture. Sadly that is not yet the case in most workplaces in India. An old Russian friend of mine, who loves India very much, once complained to me that Indians are not capable of maintaining the hi-tech combat aircraft purchased at great cost from Russia. I naturally bristled at the suggestion and said our engineers at HAL and IAF workshops were among the best in the world. My friend shook his head sadly and said that was not the case. Highly sophisticated machines, like fighter jets, he explained, required very rigorous maintenance schedules and very accurate work. Unlike commercial jet engines, fighter jet engines undergo such stresses that their maintenance is hugely complex and rigorous, small lapses can often lead to failure. He said the evidence was clear in the accident statistics measured by failures against flying hours in India as compared to Russia and other East European air forces.

Workmanship is also a function of culture and history. This is the reason why successful engineering industries cannot be set up just anywhere and even today in India as in other places in the world, machining industries are usually established in places where there has been an engineering culture such as Coimbatore in the south, Howrah in the east and Ludhiana in the north. This is why Sheffield in England still makes some of the finest steel in the world although steel making technology today is universally available. Similarly, Milan and Turin in Italy has a history of making some of the world’s finest cars including those by Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Fiat. Stuttgart in Germany, another famous automobile industry centre where Karl Benz invented the automobile, continues to be the home of a number of car and automotive parts makers such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, Maybach and Bosch. 

We still have a long way to go. The former chief of the Indian Army Staff, General Shankar Roychowdhury once told me of a test he was conducting on the Indian designed and made Arjun battle tank. It was good tank and incorporated some of the best designs, he said, but the workmanship was shoddy. During one of the trials, one of the wheels holding the tracks came loose and flew off. Later it was found that one of the bolts holding it together had sheared off.  The tank driver complained to the General that accidents like this kept happening and remarked that Indians still had not learnt to make tanks. Nothing like this ever happens to Russian or East European made tanks, he said. General Roychowdhury however decided that the Indian army must go for the indigenously made Arjun tanks. “The tanks might not be up to the mark but unless we start making and using them we will never learn and never get better”, he said, recalling similar problems the Israelis once had with their first tanks. Today, the Israelis make first rate tanks and combat aircraft. We still import over 90 per cent of our weapons systems.

This is why even in woodworking I insist on learning to work correctly, accurately and with the use of established methods. I try to keep tolerances down to the minimum and learn from my mistakes. I will never leave a pin sticking out of place or for that matter a nail in the wrong place; fortunately I was given good advice when I was still young.

Indranil Banerjie
17 May 2013

Comments

  1. Agree very much, most of the time. :(
    Somehow, we need to remove it from the blood! Alas, in this crowd of more literate than educated we need to mind upbringing.

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  2. A Very good article. After reading this learn a most important thing in designing, ACCURACY and TOLERANCE.

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  3. Anonymous23 June, 2013

    This is something which I have been really perturbed about ourselves. Nobody seems to have pride in their work. We work for minimum standard work. Thats all. We do not strive for excellence in whatever we do. Be it a laborer or the chief architect. It is time we woke up as a society and improved ourselves. Because, the day we started taking pride in what we do, accuracy will follow.

    Thanks Indranil, for including this post.

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  4. Hi Indranil,
    I really liked this post. No wonder things are bad here. People here only care about getting the job done and getting the money. No one cares how good their finished product is.

    Do you know of any Indian websites which sell Measuring Tools and Instruments?? I am really miffed with buying instruments from sellers who don't know crap about what they are selling and they continue to sell them at obscenely high prices considering their cheap quality...

    Please respond A.S.A.P.

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  5. Pratyush: Look up Mitutoyo India website; this famous Japanese company makes the best precision measuring tools in the world. Their products are pretty expensive though. But its a one time investment, in my opinion, and well worth it.

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  6. with respect to woodworking itself, i have to kind of disagree with you mr. bannerji, i have observed a range of woodworkers in india, from furniture makers, to toy makers and engravers and inlayers in india. they achieve joinery of great precision and with hand tools. if you see some of the inlay work from india, they achieve mindblowing precision in cuts and fits and that too with complex contoured patterns. i for one have never seen a void or a shadow line, where it was not intended.

    with respect to woodworking itself, i think banerji confuses artisans of east with journeymen of the west with their kaam chalau attitude to wood, and are really more interested in bulk production.

    imo, in woodworking, there are 3 levels.
    highest is the japanese and old chinese approach to woodworking. great skill, and even greater imaginative joinery engineering. they have thought about wood & construction as deep as we have about advaita. for example, 3 way miter joins only somebody with deep thinking about it can come up with it. it doesnot come to you suddenly in sleep. in contrast, in the west, a dovetail join is the holiest of grails, and even that is eventually glued. western joinery is mostly visual not functional. the joint is held by nails and glue. the aesthetics of it is all west is concerned about. and some body who has mastered making those becomes an "artist" and hence a celebrity.

    japan, joins join because of the joins. no glue, no nails, no faking anything.

    india, ime, we use western joins. but have skills of the chinese. westerners, use complex gizmos to make simple wood joins. their genius is in machine design not joinery. japan genius is in joinery. we are in between.

    there is another level to this, which is metal working to produce tools for woodworking. another subject for later day.

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  7. Historically in India due to good weather and lack of lumber buildings are built either with brick or stone Exceptions being Kashmir, Kerala & parts of Himachal. Culturally Indians tend to not use furniture.
    India however had excellent stone carvers & metal workers who were patronized by the ancient kingdoms & later on by the Mughals. I feel that the woodcarving that India excels in comes from the availability of stone carving skills & the long period of patronage to skilled artisans available in India. Thus we have excellent carving skills displayed in old homes in parts of Gujarat & in UP & Kashmir.
    That the Indian craftsmen are a capable lot is not in question. However their repertoire in woodworking is limited. India as a society today lacks the capability to develop skills of any kind. In fact we have missed the bus on development for so long & regressed so much that we do not even know what quality is.
    When you look at old monuments you realize the India that was & the India is that is are two different places. The old India not only had skills but had attention to detail. It not only made good monuments but also great cities.
    Today whether it is a big company or a small craftsman, workmanship is simply shoddy. This is because the people who pay for the workmanship & those who supervise the workmanship be they in a factory or a construction site or a craftsman workplace they all have no real skills. They even lack basic management skills
    Yes we used to have some good craftsmen. You have to look at the inlay work from Italy & compare it with the one from India. I remember the small inlay side table I saw in San Diego worth $3500. It shone like a jewel. I commented to the owner that we have such inlay work in Kashmir too. He smiled at me & said that a lot of Indians tell him that. He suggested I buy it & take it to India & produce one just like that. I asked him what is the big deal as the pattern was simple enough. He informed me that he travels once or twice every year to India to procure stuff. He said it is not enough to produce one piece which is almost good enough. It should be good enough period. The process should be repeatable. If instructions are given then there should be no baby sitting with the craftsman to get it right & then it should be shipped in proper packaging & in time. The Italians can churn out such work without any hassle & he can go about his work once he has placed his order. India cannot do that. Basically the skill is there but it does not make business sense to keep babysitting both the craftsman as well as the business owner & still have a low probability of getting the desired output.
    In the west the capability of making good furniture, joinery etc is deeply entrenched ie. there is a large population who can achieve it on a routine basis. Not only just that,I lived in many cities & have routinely known dozens of people having hobbies as complex as rebuilding full car & bike engines. Hell you could even order a DIY airplane kit for $15000!! & actually assemble an aircraft & get it licensed to fly & actually fly in it.
    If you look at the kind of joinery that goes in making full woodworking style furniture, almost 90% of the joinery is not seen & is hidden & can be quite complex. It is true to a large extent that western sensibility emphasis form over function. As a result you see the strange vision of books being used as a base for a table lamp! or paintings half hidden behind a sofa. On the other h& you do have a strong arts & crafts movement in the west typically in UK & USA. The Shaker movement leading to Shaker style furniture is almost as understated as any Japanese style. For the last century there is a distinct intermingling with Japan/China & western sensibility in the work of Nakashima, Krenov, Noguchi.
    I have rarely seen any quality work in wood in India. I would be glad to revise my opinion if I come across such work.

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  8. Hello Indranil,
    I have been reading your posts on woodworking for the past many months, covering all of them one by one and I am seriously in awe of your knowledge of woodworking, the level of detail you delve into and your writing style. I am a 30-something guy who is just starting out and I find your posts extremely informative. I happen to be constructing a new addition to my Dad's 30-year old house and I can very much connect with many of the things you write about, especially the poor quality of right angles in this country that extends from the smallest tile in the corner to large expanses of walls. Thank you for your posts and I look forward to learning more from them.

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  9. Sridhar: Many thanks for your comment. I am delighted to learn that you find my blog useful. I have come to realise that accuracy is a mindset and it gets better with practice. I am sure you will be able to do much for your father's house. Best of luck.

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