Few frameworks have had the reach and impact that the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has had in streamlining quality standards in an increasingly globalised international economy, as well as providing companies with an opportunity to secure a competitive advantage in their industries. Increasingly widespread, ISO standards have gradually established themselves as a guarantee recognized by all, from customers to public authorities and companies themselves.
The ISO has its origins in an earlier organisation called the International Federation of the National Standardising Associations (ISA), founded in 1926 to establish standards in the field of mechanical engineering. This organisation was dissolved in 1942 due to the Second World War. Four years later, 65 delegates from 25 countries converged on London to discuss a new organisation which would oversee international standardisation and launched the ISO in 1947. The acronym ‘ISO’ was chosen to avoid abbreviation variances in different languages; ‘ISO’ itself is derived from the Greek word ‘isos’, which is translated as ‘equal.’ The ISO moved into its first headquarters in Geneva in 1949, where it is still based, and published its first standard – the Standard reference temperature for industrial length measurements – in 1951.
The organisation’s work relies on the input of 2700 technical committees and working groups, and each new standard follows an identical trajectory of six stages. A proposed new standard will first be debated, and if it is determined that it is necessary, specific members of the organisation will be tasked with working on its development. Then, members develop a working draft, after which it is submitted to ISO committees for comments and discussion.
When a consensus on the standard is reached, it enters the Draft International Standard (DIS) stage. The DIS is then circulated among all ISO members, which then vote on the standard. The DIS must have a 75% approval rating; if it fails to cross this threshold, it is sent back down to the committees for further work. Successful drafts then become Final Draft International Standard and are again put to a vote among members. FDIS are then put to a confirmation vote to the members, where it must garner 75% of the vote. If it passes, it is officially published as a new standard.
An evolution of the scope of expertise
The ISO has had two notable changes in direction. For its first four decades, the organisation focused narrowly on creating international standards for tools and technical systems, such as sizing for clothes and shoes. Then, in 1987, it launched the ISO 9000 series, which focused on quality management systems – loosely defined as business processes to improve products for customers’ tastes. ISO 9001, 9002, and 9003 focus on how products are designed, developed, produced, and installed. Over 1 million firms now have ISO 9000 certification, based on eight quality management principles, making this standard one of the most widely used in international business. To secure certification for all ISO standards, companies must pass inspections from independent auditors on all their facilities. The advantages which come from ISO standards are numerous, not least of which is the facilitation and promotion of international trade. Trade between nations would be enormously difficult if it were not for these globally-accepted product and process standards, on which customers rely to make their buying choices.
Another change, the launching of ISO 14001 in 2004, was another landmark standards decision made by the ISO; this standard compels companies to fully understand their product development processes and minimize environmentally harmful effects of these processes. This process was widely implemented, with Ford setting a goal to have all its manufacturing plants adhering to this standard by 1998, while IBM followed suit.