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Columnist Jack West

Photo:  Jack West


Developing International Standards

There are good reasons why a standard takes so long to create.




Standards development isn't the most scintillating topic; it's complicated and difficult to explain in simple terms. But a basic understanding of the subject is useful, so let's take a quick look at the process used by the International Organization for Standardization and the International Electrotechnical Commission.

The key concept in developing a standard is the notion of consensus. As the ISO/IEC directives on procedures for developing standards notes: "Consensus, which requires the resolution of substantial objections, is an essential procedural principle and a necessary condition for the preparation of international standards that will be accepted and widely used. Although it is necessary for the technical work to progress speedily, sufficient time is required before the approval stage for the discussion, negotiation and resolution of significant technical disagreements."

Thus, although the market might want an internationally recognized document in a hurry, time is needed to achieve the required consensus from the ISO or IEC members involved in creating the standard. T he directives require that the following seven-stage project approach be used in developing international standards:

1. Preliminary work item stage (PWI)

2. New work item proposal stage (NWIP)

3. Preparatory stage (creating working drafts, WD)

4. Committee stage (creating committee drafts, CD)

5. Inquiry stage (for ISO creating a draft international standard, DIS, and for IEC creating a committee draft for vote, CDV)

6. Approval stage (creating a final draft international standard, FDIS)

7. Publication stage (involving the final work to publish the standard)


There are even several steps required to start work on an item. For example, the work must be within the scope of the committee and fully justified. The NWIP must be approved by a vote, either by three-month letter ballot or at a meeting of the participating committee members.

Once an NWIP is approved, the responsible committee or subcommittee assigns it to a working group (for ISO) or project team (for IEC). A project leader (convenor) is appointed to lead the group or team.

The WD and CD stages can sometimes be eliminated--for example, when a mature draft or a national standard is offered for fast-track voting at the DIS stage.

One or more WDs and, for some projects, one or more CDs will often be circulating for comments before the first CD ballot. By the end of the CD stage, the significant technical issues should be resolved.

Votes of participating committee members are required for the CD, DIS and FDIS stages. The minimum CD ballot period is three months. The minimum DIS ballot period is five months. For key TC 176 standards, both are generally five months to provide participating members (P-members) sufficient time for careful consideration. This seems like a long time between sending out a ballot electronically and expecting the vote from P-members, but we must remember that member bodies do the voting. They need time to get feedback from their individual members, and in cases where the native tongue isn't English, time must be allotted for translations.

The final FDIS approval ballot takes much less time, usually only two months. For final approval, two-thirds of the P-members must approve the FDIS, and no more than one-quarter of the total number of votes cast can be negative. Only minor editorial changes are allowed after FDIS approval.

In some cases, a document is needed faster than the standards process can deliver it, or it might not be possible to develop the full consensus needed. Recognizing these issues, ISO and IEC permit development of other types of documents for which the consensus process is significantly abbreviated. These other types of deliverables include:

Publicly available specifications

Technical specifications

Technical reports

International workshop agreements


Participating members of ISO and IEC committees are organizations, not individuals. They're national standards bodies, members of ISO or IEC, that choose to participate in the particular committee. The member body for the United States is the American National Standards Institute, which accredits technical advisory groups (TAG) to provide its representation. Each of these TAGs has an administrator. (In the case of the TC 176 TAG, it's the American Society for Quality.)

The process is cumbersome, bureaucratic and time consuming, but this approach has proven effective in developing standards that are embraced and used by the international community to facilitate global trade on an equitable basis.

About the author
John E. (Jack) West is a consultant, business advisor and author with more than 30 years of experience in a wide variety of industries. He is chair of the U.S. TAG to ISO TC 176 and lead delegate for the United States to the International Organization for Standardization committee responsible for the ISO 9000 series of quality management standards.