The Standards Culture

The cultural character of standards development

by Paul Palmes

People who volunteer to work on standards also are volunteering to work inside the culture of standards writing and development. There is a language and structure—designed to promote comprehension—central to standards work that requires an appreciation of accuracy and consistency. Standards use the word "shall" instead of "may" or "could," for example, to make it clear that something is required, and a phrase or concept is always repeated in the same manner throughout a standards document to avoid confusion.

It takes time to learn the basics of the standards language and structure, and it often requires patience—and even a degree of humility—to listen first and speak later. The ability to listen, reflect and thereby offer an informed opinion is a characteristic central to the standards culture.

The culture of standards development is grounded in cooperation and a common purpose. These characteristics—being good listeners who appreciate accuracy and consistency—are the mortar that holds together the bricks. Inquisitiveness is powerful. It can, and often does, lead to highly creative tactics, whether they are technical, political or procedural.

In addition to being good listeners who appreciate accuracy and consistency, standards writers also are inquisitive. An innate curiosity about how and why things work binds us together and frames many conversations.

Listen, learn, contribute

The standards culture is not unique—it thrives in many organizations. What is unique about U.S. technical advisory groups (TAG) is the people learning about and contributing to standards work are volunteers.

TAG membership is a fellowship by design. We are peers. U.S. TAGs use a vetting process in which the existing members review a candidate’s résumé, application and letter of support to understand his or her background, interests and experience. New members are voted into the community by current members, who also were voted in by their predecessors.

Interspersed throughout the discussions at TAG meetings is a body of knowledge worth advancing and, at times, protecting. Part of the culture of standards developers is a loyalty to the subject matter. We care about what has been developed by our predecessors. Technical details must be preserved as traditionally stated from one revision to the next until superseded by subject matter experts (SME). Continuity is important.

At a typical TAG meeting, members are informed about impending changes to a standard, perhaps a new work item that has been introduced by a country on the other side of the world or the status of revisions to an existing standards document.

Occasionally an SME will attend a TAG meeting to present his or her concerns regarding a standard or the conditions of a standard. TAG members listen intently to the SME before discussing the issue among themselves, either in open session or breakout groups, to formulate a position on the SME’s concerns, or develop text to include when writing or revising a standard to address the expert’s concerns—accurate, clearly written text that is technically correct and consistent with the rest of the standard’s requirements. During this process, the sequence of listening, learning and contributing is maintained.

Guided by process

The standards development process requires discipline and attentiveness. Call it discipline among friends, but discipline remains a key component of the standards culture.

There is an implied strength to a disciplined approach to standards development; a shared expectation of certainty, clarity and respect for process that is woven through the fabric of standards development. As a cultural component, we rely on processes to guide our activities, not hinder them.

The process approach to standards development is plan, do, check, act (PDCA)—though there are those who occasionally remind us that W. Edwards Deming favored plan, do, study, act (PDSA) as his career progressed and his thinking matured.

But can you imagine the world’s reaction to the appearance of PDSA in a new or revised standard and the countless hours of discussion that would follow? To some, PDCA vs. PDSA is a distinction without a difference. But to others, PDSA is heresy: better to maintain the accepted standard and protect what we all have come to understand than to incite a storm of protest.

Evolving standards

Nonetheless, given the restrictions of International Organization for Standardization (ISO) directives and American National Standards Institute and TAG procedures, there is opportunity for standards change and variation—under the right circumstances.

That’s why—internationally and in the United States—ISO has a formal portal for the inquisitive among us who are looking for clarification or additional comment on a standard. It’s called the interpretations process and is open to anyone throughout the world who wants to ask a technical question of their country’s TAG.

Standards are the foundation of how we get along and how we continue to function effectively in an increasingly complex environment. The sentences that make up this article are built from an alphabet containing 26 letters in a framework of grammatical rules and guidance that has gone relatively unchanged for centuries. The laptop I’m using is plugged into a 120-volt outlet. But when I was a child, house current was 110 volts. And even a casual read of the Federalist Papers, or certainly Shakespeare’s writings, would convince anyone that the standards of the written word are anything but standard.

We evolve, our systems evolve, our applications change and, in the process, so do we. Being a part of these changes and aware of the forces that drive them is deeply embedded in standards work. In the end, standards define, enable, uplift and embody culture at large. Standards are foundational to maintaining the continuity that allows culture to flourish.

Standards writers are fortunate to be among those who foster it.

If you are interested in standards work, send an email to standards@asq.org.

Benefits of TAG membership

Being a member of a technical advisory group (TAG) comes with its benefits. Not only will you benefit personally and professionally, but you also can represent your organization’s best interests. Benefits of TAG membership include:

  • Expand your professional network by meeting and connecting with other TAG members. Many create lifelong friendships.
  • Adding TAG membership status to your résumé is a statement of professionalism and gravitas.
  • Because TAG members have the first look at new or revised standards, they can represent their organization’s interests and values.
  • Membership will provide you with the expertise you and your organization need to stay ahead of the competition.1


  1. American National Standards Institute, www.standardsboostbusiness.org.

Paul Palmes is principal consultant with Business Systems Architects Inc. He is chairman of the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to the International Organization for Standardization, Technical Committee 176 (ISO/TC 176), and chairman of ISO/TC 176, subcommittee 1, responsible for ISO 9000:2015. He is the author of ISO 9001: 2015: Understand, Implement, Succeed! (Prentice Hall, 2015), Process Driven Comprehensive Auditing, second edition (ASQ Quality Press, 2009) and The Magic of Self-Directed Work Teams (ASQ Quality Press, 2006).

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