Who would have thought it? Boring old standards bring us closer to a beautiful world?
Yes, standards have established a new world language, a new world culture. They are protecting people’s health and the environment. They are helping creativity and international understanding. They have been a powerful and trusted driving force in the process of globalisation, which has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty into prosperity.
Like a language – English, Chinese, Hindi, German, Spanish, French – a standard builds a bridge between people. “If I make this sound, we both understand that it means this. If I write this symbol, we both understand that means that. If I perform this action, we both understand the gesture”. The first ISO* standard came out in 1987 and set out how offices should operate reliably. The trust-building comes from the certification by respected neutral bodies, like Germany’s TÜV, who send a team to audit the company and see whether it really complies. This process alone has been a great benefit to companies around the globe: by identifying their shortcomings and motivating them to raise their performance.
Certified standards have now extended downstream into Electronic Manufacturing Services (EMS) (16949 ensures that what comes off the production line is what we actually want to make; 13485 ensures that our medical devices are of the right quality), food safety (ISO 22000), information security (ISO 27001), the environment (ISO 14001) and many more.
These have been a major help to globalisation. Before them, each Original Equipment Maker (OEM) customer would need to send an audit team into all its candidate suppliers to check them out. This was only possible for the very biggest companies. Now that professional third-party auditors do the job, international business has democratised down to small companies, opening the doors to a wealth of efficiency and creativity.
Standardisation has helped in other fields too: a designer in Colorado, Switzerland can now email a file to a toolmaker in China, where the file will be reliably read, and the correct tool will emerge. Before this, the same process was immensely laborious: generating many dimensions along with their descriptions, interpreting these upon receipt and translating them into the settings that the tool-making machinery required, adjusting the machinery as it worked (being designed to a different standard meant it required manual intervention from time-to-time), and finally enhanced (and laborious) error-checking of the finished product. Now, the two sides merely agree on the software file standards and move on from there.
Environmental awareness is moving the world to a Life Cycle approach and becoming more resource-efficient: Germany pioneered the “Green Dot”, charging makers and importers for the materials-recycling costs of their products. This had a dramatic effect on packaging: packaging has shifted from Styrofoam (“Styropor” or expanded polystyrene: expensive to recycle, polluting to discard) to cleverly-folded cardboard, which is easy and efficient to recycle. The EU’s RoHS (“Return of Hazardous Substances”) system is improving the quality of ground waters and solids recycling. It applies to all manufactured products.
So, the creation and application of standards have been far from boring for business: it has reduced product costs, speeded up design cycles, improved business processes, extended international cooperation, and empathy, and improved the health and environment of people around the world.
* ISO: International Standards Organisation; now the International Organisation for Standards, headquartered in Switzerland.