Monday, September 12, 2016

When is a standard NOT a standard?

There are a bunch of words that get thrown around a lot in the Quality community; words like “continual” or “continuing” or “improvement”  or “risk”.  But I would argue that the most significant word in the Quality arena is the word “Standard”.
In the Quality arena “Standards” is a powerful word.  It describes a document that indicates either “the right and thoughtful thing to do” or “the only and absolute thing to do”.   

A standard has a higher value than “guidance” which is something you can take or leave.  The general public understands this; David Letterman used to say “Traffic signals in New York are just rough guidelines” or there was the pirate in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean who said “the code of the brethren is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules”.  Think of standards as similar to, but more righteous than regulations or laws and certainly more dignified than “rules”, which can be arbitrary, and more real than guidelines, which all too often are not much more than a punchline.

The word “standard” must be viewed as special and be safeguarded from abuse.
Standards deserve that special prominence because there are specifics about how standards must be properly designed and properly constructed.   Simply put, a standard is a respected document of requirement, not because of its content but more so because how those words were selected for proper use.  

The ultimate source of standards is the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) which points to a process of both objectivity and consensus.  ISO as the premier standards development body has established the importance of standards development objectivity.  ISO does not decide what standards it is going to write.  Instead member bodies have to make a solid proposal which is circulated through member committees to get approved.  

ISO committees that are given approval to develop the standard are made of individuals from a variety of jurisdictions, each with their own vested opinions.  To get through this process a document has to achieve agreement from at least two thirds of committee members with less than 25 percent of votes cast to the negative.  That is called committee consensus.  

But that alone does not assure the path to publication.  After committee consensus, the document has to be circulated broadly throughout the world to interested parties to get a broad sense of opinion.  All issues and differences raised through this process have to be addressed.  Only after the process has been repeated several times, to ensure as broad an agreement as possible,  a document can be published and referred to as a “standard”.  

And importantly, in order to ensure that any error that slip by are addressed and to ensure that the standard remains relevant to the times, it must be revisited every 5 years.

If a document does not succeed in going through this arduous process, often the result of differing opinions, it can still be published, but the term “standard” cannot be used.  The meaning of the term “standard” is, as it must be, protected from abuse or trivialization. 

There are solid reasons for this arduous process.  First off, when a small group of people decides to get together and write something, there is always a great risk for bias and for exclusion.  Not asking for broad opinion almost guarantees that none will be found.  The product generated, whatever its intent and purpose, is tainted because of the lack of broad consideration.  

Tainted standards are not the product solely of small organizations who strive a little too hard.  They all too often finds itself in the products of large “august” national bodies, who should know better.  They result because of the innate arrogance of august bodies.  “We must be right because we are so damn important”.

This last while, I have been dealing with one such organization with a disturbing track record.  An organization that makes up rules without working through objectivity or wide consensus, but who stills calls its products "standards".  An organization who wraps itself in a cocoon of self-import of its own making, either oblivious or indifferent to the flaws in their own “standards”.   I can’t go into specific detail here for obvious reason, but the battle ground is now set.

So let me just end (for now) with the following thought, if an organization is not prepared to put its work through a process of objectivity and the scrutiny of consensus through transparency, then it is just a bunch of guys and women hanging out making up its own rules.  Hardly august, and hardly dignified; more about pretense and self-serving rules than actually writing standards.

Just another herd of Pirates.