Although the latest revision of the ISO 9001 quality management standard will not be released until later this year, many companies are already investigating what 9001:2015 will mean to their quality management systems. One element many are anticipating is the section concerning risk management.

While many are anticipating the future of the standard, it seems appropriate to look back in time, when it was difficult to get a standardized product in neighboring towns, let alone around the world.

A Brief History from ISA to ISO

While standardization started to come up in the early 19th century, it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that international standards were formalized. In 1926, the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA) was established as the global standards body, but was suspended in 1942 during World War II.

After the war, ISA was approached by the recently formed United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee (UNSCC) with a proposal to form a new global standards body. In October 1946, ISA and UNSCC delegates from 25 countries met in London and agreed to join forces to create the new International Organization for Standardization. Why isn’t this organization known as IOS?

The answer to that question stems from having three official languages: English, French and Russian. The abbreviation is different in each of the languages so the International Organization for Standardization decided to take its abbreviation from the Greek isos, meaning equal. ISO officially began operations in February 1947. To learn more about ISO, visit

Historians and quality professionals will argue what event(s) propelled standardization into the spotlight but, as far as Americans are concerned, one name figures prominently in the discussion: Eli Whitney.

While Eli Whitney is most often associated with the cotton gin, he was a prolific inventor more than proficient businessman—an early adaptor of technological advances and a proponent of interchangeable parts, mass production, and what we now know as quality standards. It is important to note that Whitney did not invent the concept of interchangeable parts, nor did he create the mass production process in the manufacturing sector. He is sometimes referred to as the father of standardization, but that sentiment isn’t shared by all thought leaders. He was, however, instrumental (although not the only businessman) in convincing the U.S. government and business owners that interchangeable parts were necessary for economic and manufacturing growth. This concept led to mass production and the beginning of quality standards.

In 1798, Whitney received the first of several U.S. government contracts to produce muskets. Working from the ideas of Honoré Blanc, the superintendent of French armories, who was successfully using interchangeable parts through the help of a large workforce, Whitney planned to convert the interchangeable parts idea using machines.

Fulfilling the first contract didn’t go well for Whitney and his team. It took 10 years to deliver the muskets to the defense department of the U.S. government. The 10-year wait was not the only concern. The muskets didn’t work, pieces didn’t fit properly and, in some cases, the product broke in two. Even for the quality expectations of the time, this was disappointing and worrisome, especially since these muskets were to be furnished to the U.S. military.

Whitney and his team of mostly unskilled laborers worked to fix the problems and delivered the 10,000-musket batch eight years late, but Whitney’s reputation remained mostly intact.

All through this process, Whitney took meticulous notes, documenting everything to develop a standard process.

Two hundred years later standardization is essential to business practices, and the quality community is essential to standardization. However, while Eli Whitney and his contemporaries were simply trying to produce a working product at the lowest cost, today’s quality standards go further to encompass process, risk, environmental issues, and corporate responsibility.