Regulation

Somebody Call Dwight Schrute

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The Washington Post uncovers the specs for private contractors who want to supply paper towels for Capitol bathrooms:

· "C-fold paper towels provided shall have a minimum unfolded width of 10.25 inches, with a permissible variance of plus .25 or minus .50 inches, and maximum length of 14 inches.

"Each towel shall have a minimum area of 130 square inches. The folded width of each towel shall be 3 inches, with a permissible variance of plus .25 or minus .50 inches."

· "The rate of absorption of paper towel material provided shall not be greater than 20 seconds for the absorption of 0.1 milliliter of water on any representative sample of paper towel as submitted."

· "The color of the paper towel shall be white, with a minimum brightness rating of 70 when measured in accordance with the requirements of test method T-452 of the Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industries."

· "The minimum thickness of 12 single plies of the paper towel material provided shall be 0.070 inch when measured under an applied pressure of 0.5 psig."

Better yet is the first commenter at the Post's website, who quickly demanded to know why the specs didn't go far enough:

So why is there no minimum recycled content? Why do they have to be bleached white instead of a natural color that would not require pollutants?

NEXT: Debbie Does HD

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  1. These boil down to:
    1. The towels need to be wide enough to wipe your hands on them properly

    2. The towels need to be big enough overall to wipe your hands on them properly.

    3. The towels need to absorb water quickly enough that they actually dry your hands properly.

    4. The towels need to be white.

    5. Don’t make them out of tissue paper.

    By making the standards meticulously quantified, it shifts the burden to the contracters to verify the towels will get the job done, rather than to the purchasers who would otherwise have to examine all the towels to make sure they’re subjectively good enough.

    Also, this is probably related to the requirement that government contracts be subject to open bids against objective specifications.

  2. Shaking head

    Who writes these specifications? How many man-hours did they waste on this?

    May they suffer a hideous death from a 1,000 paper cuts.

  3. rather than to the purchasers who would otherwise have to examine all the towels to make sure they’re subjectively good enough.

    Come on….it’s paper towels. Just buy them from a reputable supplier, same as everyone else.

  4. May they suffer a hideous death from a 1,000 paper cuts.

    Only if it’s in the specs. Otherwise, you have to re-do the entire RFP.

  5. Congress would probably operate more to my liking if they removed bathrooms from the Capitol entirely.

  6. Just buy them from a reputable supplier, same as everyone else.

    If there are laws which require an open bidding process (as a guard against corruption), then they can’t just pick a reputable supplier the way a private company does.

  7. I agree with several of the posters on this one.

    I would bet (though I have no personal knowledge about this) that all of those specifications are based on common industry standards, meaning that this probably didn’t take very much time to throw together.

    Having these standards in place means that there can be competitive bidding based solely on price, rather than on a bunch of incomparable factors. (“This one’s more absorbant.” “But that one’s too small and this one’s whiter.” etc.)

    Without standards in place, you leave it open for whichever manufacturer/distributer has the best inside connections.

    So yeah, it takes a little more time to put this together than to just say “paper towels”, but in the long run you save on corruption and waste.

    Of course, this assumes that the specifications aren’t just cherry-picked to favor one particular company, but I see no evidence that that’s the case here.

  8. Maniakes is correct.

    The Federal Acquisitions Regulation (FAR)(take a look it’s huge!) The FAR requires an open bidding process for fair competition.

    This looks like a performance specification. Performance specs are much better than the detail specs which the government used to use all the time.

  9. Having worked with contractors, I believe that in general, you can’t go wrong by setting down detailed specifications. This doesn’t seem all that strange to me. My work has never involved paper towels so I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d find exactly this sort of thing in the private sector.

  10. If you can’t handle a paper-towel purchase without a detailed list of specifications, you’re too goddamned dumb to be allowed to run the country.

  11. With one fell swoop, Scott Paper should win the bid. Too bad that rapacious robber baron Al Dunlap killed the brand.

    http://www.northlandposter.com/catalog/p141.html

  12. Detailed specifications are specs that tell the contractor not only what to make, but how to make it, what materials to use, etc etc. Performance specs are generally “better” because they tell the contractor the requirements but leave the manufacturing to them. This allows for innovation, product progress and other beneficial things.

  13. Duppy:

    Having worked with contractors, I believe that in general, you can’t go wrong by setting down detailed specifications.

    Look at me, Duppy. Look at me… it’s paper towels. PAPER FREAKIN’ TOWELS!

  14. Jennifer, it’s a federal supply contract: if there wasn’t a detailed list of specifications, the towels would either be one inch squares of disintegrating used newspapers (sold a penny less per unit than normal towels, thus winning the bid), or towels embedded with little gold fibers, sold cost-plus in the manner of a Pentagon toilet seat.

  15. if there wasn’t a detailed list of specifications, the towels would either be one inch squares of disintegrating used newspapers (sold a penny less per unit than normal towels, thus winning the bid), or towels embedded with little gold fibers, sold cost-plus in the manner of a Pentagon toilet seat.

    Thus proving my point: if you need a list of specifications to avoid buying such things when you need paper towels, YOU’RE TOO GODDAMNED DUMB TO RUN THE COUNTRY.

    That deserved to be written in all caps.

  16. “Thus proving my point: if you need a list of specifications to avoid buying such things when you need paper towels, YOU’RE TOO GODDAMNED DUMB TO RUN THE COUNTRY.”

    George Bush buys the paper towels? I would have thought they could an assistant or something to do that.

  17. I would have thought they could an assistant or something to do that.

    Preferably an assistant intelligent enough to buy a paper towel without having to consult a graduate thesis about it first.

  18. Jennifer,

    This is not someone going down to Walmart during the lunch hour to pick up a couple of rolls of towels for the breakroom.

    It is a contract for the supply of possibly of units.

    If we are going to have an open bidding process then bidders need to be bidding on the same thing.

    I know defending the guvmint is contrary to my usual behavior but, frankly, compared to some these specs are pretty brief and to the point even when compared to those issued by private entities.

  19. The 3rd para should read:

    “If we are going to have an open bidding process then bidders need to be bidding on the same thing. This is accomplished by issuing detailed specifications to bidders, describing exactly what you want.

  20. Speaking of which, how much do you think the toilet seats in that restroom cost?

  21. In the absence of an open and transparent bidding process we would get Government Purchasing agents giving all the supply contracts to their college chums and we get enough of that in political appointments already.

  22. Well, we can see from the comments here who has had actual business experience and who hasn’t. Or any project management experience at all, actually.

    Yes, they are “friggin’ paper towels”. And if you didn’t have the specifications somewhere the chances are high of getting into a slanging match of “that’s not what I ordered!” “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!”

    Specs protect the provider as well, y’know. Or do you think that companies LIKE paying lawyers at $200/hour to figure out what should have been put down in a spec sheet in the first place? Or having manufactured 200,000 rolls of paper that turn out to be Not Acceptable and have to be junked?

    Sheesh. You guys had better never take a look at the UCC. You’ll keel over in shock.

  23. it’s a federal supply contract: if there wasn’t a detailed list of specifications, the towels would either be one inch squares of disintegrating used newspapers (sold a penny less per unit than normal towels, thus winning the bid), or towels embedded with little gold fibers, sold cost-plus in the manner of a Pentagon toilet seat.

    It’s amazing then that I’ve been in numerous bathrooms from McDonalds to Wal-Mart to everywhere in between and none of the paper towels there are 1 inch square or gold laced. Here’s an idea, require a sample of the paper towel be submitted with the bid. If it’s 1 inch square or gold laced, reject the bid.

  24. If you were a federal bureaucrat, you DON’T CARE about avoiding buying such things.

    It’s not your money.

  25. Timmy, get us some paper towels.

    Sure, boss.

    Timmy, are you getting the paper towels?

    Yes.

    Timmy, those paper towels are tiny and made of sand paper.

    Timmy, do you know what this means?

    What, boss?

    A (real world): You’re fired.
    B (why the regs are necessary): Try again, Timmy.

  26. This is not someone going down to Walmart during the lunch hour to pick up a couple of rolls of towels for the breakroom.

    It is a contract for the supply of possibly of units.

    isaac. Look at me. Look at me… IT’S PAPER FREAKIN’ TOWELS!

    Allow me to elaborate. I work for a business. In this business, we have bathrooms. In those bathrooms are such sundries including but not limited to the following:

    Sinks
    Toilets
    Urinals*
    Soap
    Paper Towels

    Some of those things are consumable, some aren’t. We have a contract with a maintenance and supply company. The little wizards who work for the paper supply company, at some regular interval (probably specified within said contract) replace the consumable items.

    When our business operational staff made said contract with the maintenance and supply company, no detailed specifications for soap and paper towels were delivered.

    This is because a of the high number of maintenance and supply companies which obtain supplies of soap and paper towels which are considered nominally suitable for the purposes of washing and drying.

    There are probably tens, if not hudnreds of supply wholesalers which provide said soap and papertowels to the facilities maintenance contractors. Within this framework of wholesalers, supply companies, maintenance contractors, and business entities, there is an existing framework of both explicit implied knowledge regarding the general guidelines for bathroom paper towels. It is within that framework that most business (and private) entities work– to a high degree of success without the requirement for byzantine paper towl engineering schematics, specifications, descriptors, dimensional drawings or 3d extrusions labeled:

    Towel, paper: Bathroom use, spec rev 2.6

    *Urinals: An item often found in bathrooms labeled : Male, where multiple toilet facilities exist within the same bathroom structure. Their primary function is for standing urination. Dimensional specifications available upon request.

  27. Matt L

    Guess what, “McDonalds to Wal-Mart to everywhere in between”, get their paper towels by putting out requests for bids with detailed specs which look an awful like the ones we’re laughing at here.

    If your company is small enough you send out the girl friday to pick up some towels at Walmart. Get big enough and you start to operate like Uncle Sam. That’s actually where he learned a lot of it.

  28. replace: “explicit implied knowledge” with “explicit & implied knowledge”

    Thank you for your patience.

  29. Isaac Bartram | April 6, 2007, 4:59pm | #
    Matt L

    Guess what, “McDonalds to Wal-Mart to everywhere in between”, get their paper towels by putting out requests for bids with detailed specs which look an awful like the ones we’re laughing at here.

    My point was there don’t seem to be many of these “Let’s screw the gov’t with our tiny 1 inch square paper towels.” paper towels out there.

    Paul made a similar point more eloquently in his 4:59pm post.

  30. My point was there don’t seem to be many of these “Let’s screw the gov’t with our tiny 1 inch square paper towels.” paper towels out there.

    That’s because of specifications. 🙂

    OK, fine. I think keith was using hyperbole here.

    In case you don’t know, hyperbole is a literary device where exaggeration is used to emphasize a point. Such statements are rarely meant to be taken literally.

    When our business operational staff made said contract with the maintenance and supply company, no detailed specifications for soap and paper towels were delivered.

    If your company is big enough you bet your ass there were.

    If it is not, then you have a contract that was made with close personal interaction between your building manager and the sales rep of the vendor and one that can be canceled at will. As soon as any item is considered unsatisfactory, bingo, vendor gone.

    This is a supply contract for the Capitol. As I meant to write above “It is a contract for the supply of possibly thousands of units”. (I omitted the word thousands.)

    Try to terminate such a contract in the middle and see how the vendor reacts.

    Pretty soon you’ve got a battle with the law firm of Nasty, Solitary, Brutish and Short going up against Dewey, Cheatham and Howe arguing about the placement of a semi-colon in the thirteenth clause of the eighteenth section of the contract.

    Clearly spelling out your material requirements up front can spare you getting those guys involved.

  31. As said, based on the comments above we can see those who have had Real Life Experience of business and those who don’t….

    And that “gee, we just outsource this whole problem to a group of people who come in and handle it for us so we’d just be saying “spec 3.1 for paper towels”” is totally missing the point.

    Where do you think the specs come from in the first place?

    As someone who has done enough international sourcing/project management, the only thing I can say is Specifications Are Golden and they will still not save your ass if both of you are talking about different “common” standards. Which is why when we got a piece of prototype equipment from the US we had a three prong plug on one side and a two prong hole to stick it into on the other. Yes, Virginia, there are *two* RS-485 standards–one old, and one new. The US migrated to the new version some time ago–Japan never bothered.

    Someone who thinks this is silly because this is a freakin’ paper towel has never had to deal with a contract that didn’t make deadline having been screwed up on transit because it was faxed on A4 paper while the receiving fax was letter-sized, thus requiring two sheets of paper to receive each A4 sheet and the machine running out of paper (true story), or cutting off the bottom, truncating particular important sentences.

  32. *Urinals: An item often found in bathrooms labeled : Male, where multiple toilet facilities exist within the same bathroom structure. Their primary function is for standing urination. Dimensional specifications available upon request.

    hehe

    You’ve never read a set of standard specifications from the American Institute of Architects, have you?

    All the dimensional specifications are available there. No request needed.

  33. I work for the government. We’re lucky we even get paper towels.

    They’re brown, by the way.

  34. At my previous place of employment, we had a lot of government customers. Some of them would send us RFPs, which means we would have to source what they wanted and quote a price. It was a brutal hassle, and often didn’t lead to a sale, because we would find out that what was required wasn’t available any longer, or had been superceded by a new version of the product with new pricing.

    Other .gov customers were cleverer than that. They would order just enough product to not exceed the limits for discretionary spending on their government credit cards, or for small invoices. That meant that we didn’t waste three weeks or more waiting for the purchasing supervisor to sign off on the order, by which time items that our wholesalers used to have in stock were now on backorder, or requiring us to refigure the pricing because the manufacturers had instituted new price schedules.

    We gave business, institutional and government accounts good discounts on stock items, and passed along any rush shipping charges when somebody needed a special order on a date certain. The `crats who charged small orders frequently from us might have saved more money by buying direct from the manufacturer in bulk, but I think we did a better job at JITing the stuff they needed, and they avoided having to get new vendors authorized, which I understand could be a paperwork nightmare for their departments, as well as for the merchants or mfgers involved. The local governments liked to buy from local businesses, too.

    Going to Sam’s Club or Costco for the towels would probably be smarter than Wallyworld.

    Kevin

  35. Thanks Issac, it was hyperbole. And the gold thread thing too.

    On the commute home, though, I realized what I should’ve said. The finest, finest paper towel I’ve ever had the privilege to use was a Kimberly-Clark product with a nylon mesh embedded in it. Great for hobby use or cleaning the kitchen. Overkill for just drying hands.

    Don’t think the private sector isn’t involved in this: I have discovered there’s an ASTM standard for paper towels, though it appears withdrawn with no replacement in 2000. I’d have to pay for the full text, but I suspect the standards in the original post copy from the ASTM standard.

    ASTM D 4431 Standard Specification for Paper Towels for Industrial and Institutional Use

    http://www.astm.org/cgi-bin/SoftCart.exe/DATABASE.CART/WITHDRAWN/D4431.htm?L+mystore+hlqk8869

  36. Thanks Issac, it was hyperbole.

    I thought it was.

    My larger point is, that if people in large institutions want stuff from other people who are separated from them by large distances and shipping times they need to specify exactly what it is they want in unambiguous language.

    Otherwise they are likely to be disappointed and they will find themselves dealing with the likes of Nasty, Solitary, Brutish and Short and Dewey, Cheatham and Howe.

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