Thursday, May 31, 2012

Six Sigma in the toilet

Beijing is having another of its intermittent pushes to improve its image by beefing up hygiene standards in its public toilets.

Amongst a raft of new policies announced last week, the detail that caught every journalist's attention was the bizarre 'two fly' rule: no public toilet may have more than two flies in it. [Presumably this means houseflies rather than trouser flies... ho, ho. If flies on underpants were intended as the subject of this regulation, it would in fact be a covert addition to the current anti-foreigner campaign being waged in the capital. Chinese underpants do not have a fly; this is a Western aberration.]

One of the shrewdest and funniest commentaries on this measure came from Leo Lewis of The Times. Unfortunately his piece from last Thursday cowers behind a paywall (or a register-your-details-for-our-endless-e-marketing-assaults-wall, or something), but I don't think he'll mind me reprinting a brief highlight.

Issued yesterday to the bafflement of veteran toilet cleaners around the capital, the Working Standard of Beijing Major Industries’ Public Toilet Management is designed to bring draconian improvements to public hygiene and the 12,000 public toilets in the city.  

Key to that, according to one troubling paragraph, is ensuring that the number of flies “resident” in each facility is never allowed to exceed two. To widespread consternation, the rules offer no suggestions of how to achieve that exacting standard or even how to measure the fly population in the first place.  

As with all censuses, there are profound complexities. The two fly rule does not specify, for example, whether the quota refers to living or dead specimens, and whether or not to count a fly that had entered through a door or window but shown no sign of wishing to prolong the visit.  

One toilet cleaner, who gave her name as Wang, said that the rules were also frustratingly vague on what to do if the resident fly population was precisely two: “are we obliged to destroy the surviving two, or leave them be?” she said. 
Despite the apparently no-nonsense demands of the two fly rule, officials at the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Administration and Environment (BMCCAE) admitted that the rules were primarily designed to “lead public toilets in a better direction” and indicated that enforcement of the two fly rule would not be as rigorous as many toilet cleaners might fear.  
“We will not actually count fly numbers,” said Xie Guomin, an official at the BMCCAE, “the regulation is specific and quantified, but the inspection methodology will be flexible.”  [My emphasis]

Toilet cleaning professionals in several facilities near to The Times office in Beijing pointed out that the two fly rule has not been accompanied with any budgetary changes that would allow them to procure, for example, a fly swat.

So, as with most Chinese laws and regulations, it's really more of a guideline.

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