Knowledge Is Power

How to ensure a successful standardization project

by R. Dan Reid

Standards are part of our daily lives, even though we may not always be cognizant of their effects on day-to-day life. You can drive across the country and easily recognize most highway signs and traffic controls. Clothing and shoes come in standard sizes. Measurements have standards, but more potential exists (metric vs. English systems).

In business, executives seldom place high value on standardization work. It is not entirely their fault. In most systems, executives are rewarded for coming up with creative solutions to complex problems rather than for standardization work. Yet, there is tremendous value in standardization.

But if you’re going to dive into this world, there are a few prerequisites and key success factors that can help ensure you stay afloat.

Five prerequisites

  1. Leadership: There is a difference between leadership and management. Warren G. Bennis, organizational consultant and author, said, "Failing organizations are usually over-managed and under-led."1 H. Ross Perot, businessman and former presidential candidate, said, "Inventories can be managed, but people must be led."2

    Successful projects (and successful organizations) are led by people with vision. When General Motors, Ford and Chrysler were first working on automotive standardization, a vice president of purchasing stated emphatically there would never be a common quality standard in the automotive industry and retired shortly thereafter. A few months later, his replacement said, "We will have one this year."

    One prerequisite for delivering a successful standard is a visionary leader who can identify the need and commit the resources to see it through. On the management level, the project must be well planned and organized.

    A charter or similar document defining the project scope, expected deliverables, approval process and due dates can help the drafting team get off to a fast start. In addition to the drafting work, plans will need to be made and executed for related activities, such as communications and training needed to support implementation.

  2. Subject matter experts (SMEs): A key prerequisite is to secure SMEs for the drafting team who must be recognized as experts by the target audiences of the deliverables. Without professional credibility, the team will need to resort to exceptional planning, heroic efforts and luck (or line up a powerful organizational sponsor sometimes referred to as the "big gorilla").

    On the other hand, having credible SMEs will go a long way toward overcoming the objections that are sure to come. The SMEs will be able to recognize the project needs and risks, proactively identify remedies and build a strong case for adoption of the deliverable.

  3. Belief in the value of standardization: Companies do not send people to training classes because there is a business case. They do it because they believe it is the right thing to do and payback will come in time. It is the same for standardization work. There can be enormous savings in the long term if you pick the right project and deliverables. Those who require a business case to authorize standardization work will kill the project.

  4. Perseverance: The bigger the potential impact of the standardization deliverable, the longer it will take to implement. Drafting a new standard is the easiest and quickest part of a big project. Reaching consensus to implement what has been drafted is much more difficult. Large organizations have divisions, corporate headquarters and plant staff personnel to satisfy. It takes time and effort to gain the needed consensus.

    Standards developers must be in it for the long haul. The journey can be difficult, even treacherous. Not only will the team members need to convince the stakeholders of the value of the deliverables, but they will also need to overcome objections of those who proactively oppose it for whatever reason. Being under fire may not feel great, but gaining final consensus and implementation is the reward.

  5. Deliverables that make a difference: International standards take years to produce and approve. Successful ones include ISO 9001, ISO 14001 and ISO 17025, which have become the standards for third-party certification or accreditation programs that have eliminated many largely redundant customer audits for suppliers.

There are numerous other international deliverables, including guidelines and technical specifications that are of little value. When was the last time you looked at ISO 10018, Complaints handling—Guidelines for organizations? How about ISO 10006, Quality management systems—Guidelines for quality management in projects?

Resources are scarce. Organizations need to prioritize and work on the things that matter the most. New work items require a justification study to quantify the potential value to stakeholders prior to approval. In organizations, high-leverage activities (those requiring little effort while making a big impact) should be targeted. Brainstorming with cross-functional teams can result in innovative ideas for valuable projects.

Most organizations never get involved in international standards work. As a result, international deliverables are of little interest to them. This should not discourage you from pursuing worthwhile standardization activities within your sphere of influence. Often, organizations have multiple redundant processes and forms, such as corrective action requests and change notices. These can be high-leverage standardization projects that improve speed and linearity, producing more timely results.

Five key success factors

  1. Small drafting team: I have worked on standards as part of a large drafting committee and as part of a small one. My experiences have been much better with the latter. One reason is speed. Smaller teams are easier to get together for work, so more meetings can be scheduled in the short term to expedite a draft deliverable for the next success factor.

    Another reason is air time. If you have the requisite SMEs on the team, it is important they be heard and have ample opportunity to contribute. This is difficult in large drafting teams.

  2. Wide review and comment cycles: This process to get input from those not on the drafting team is more critical if you have a small drafting team. It is important to plan and work to get every member’s comments. It is best to structure this effort by using a template to gather, compile and sort through the comments to see where the preponderance of opinion is located.

    Sometimes, individual responses will be necessary. Regardless, a new draft will need to be prepared and recirculated for review and comment. This should be done several times to gain broad consensus.

  3. Communication: Often overlooked is the need to have a communication plan to support the project development and implementation. If it is a large project, stakeholders will want to know the status of the draft, the target delivery date and any roadblocks that have been identified. As consensus builds, plans for the launch must be communicated while any training needed to support the implementation is developed. A RASIC (responsibility, approval, support, inform and consult) chart can help identify those who must be informed at various stages of the project.

  4. Passion: We have all been assigned to teams with members who would prefer to be doing something else. Such is life. But having a passion for the work will see you through the project’s difficulties. When the time comes to sell the standard to stakeholders to gain the needed consensus, having a passion for the project can make all the difference. You will be able to draw upon that for motivation to see the project through.

  5. Compromise: Standards development is a little like legislation development. The original writers seldom get everything they want in the final deliverable. It is wise to recognize this up front to avoid potential frustration. Some content in the deliverable will be worth fighting for, but some will not. The drafters should identify up front what content is absolutely necessary, and then plan efforts to reach consensus on the critical points with key stakeholders—even if it means going outside the review and comment period.

Take the plunge

More than likely, there’s an ASQ division near you that participates in standardization work to benefit its constituents. Or perhaps your organization belongs to a trade group that works on standards for your industry.

If you’re not looking for something on that scale, your department likely has opportunities for standardizing processes and their deliverables to make things better. Why not use this opportunity to provide leadership within your sphere of influence?

Never be afraid to try something new, even if you don’t think you’re qualified to do so. Remember, an amateur built the ark, and professionals built the Titanic. Find a project, and go for it.


  1. BrainyQuote, "Warren G. Bennis Quotes," www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/w/warrengbe163060.html.
  2. Wisdom Quotes, "H. Ross Perot Quotes," www.wisdomquotes.com/000962.html.

R. Dan Reid is the senior supplier quality manager at Baxter BioScience in Los Angeles, following a 32-year career at General Motors (GM). He is a co-author of ISO 9001:2000; QS-9000; ISO/TS 16949; the Chrysler, Ford and GM Advanced Product Quality Planning and Control Plan, Production Part Approval Process and Potential Failure Modes and Effects Analysis manuals; ISO IWA 1; and AIAG’s Business Operating Systems for Health Care Organizations. Reid is an ASQ fellow and an ASQ-certified quality engineer.

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