Standards: Who Writes that Stuff Anyway?
Once a new standard is written that is not the end of it all.
There’s no question about this column. I accept the blame for what appears in this monthly effort for better or worse. This column is all about the standards I often refer to in my rants. I frequently encounter folks who question the information these standards contain and sometimes the question is valid but there are ways to challenge or change technical details within them. Too often, however, there is a suspicion that some sort of conspiracy is the reason for them, which is rarely the case.
Over the years I have been part of several committees for organizations such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) who produce these documents that are usually widely followed within various industries. One or more companies usually initiate the preparation of them due to situations common to many companies in their field or it could be a military procurement, or safety concern, among others.
The simplest way to put it is, standards are prepared so everyone is singing from the same song sheet whether it’s a product or a process specification. For a standard to be of any value it has to reflect reality and be used by the industry or organization it was written for. For this to happen, the folks who toil at putting a standard together have to represent a range of related interests.
You can see this by looking at ASME standards that usually have a listing of the committee members who put a standard together so you can see that a number of interests are covered by it.
For example, late last fall I attended a two and half day meeting dealing with screw threads and the gaging for them. Gage manufacturers, calibration labs, makers of general threaded fasteners and in the case of one type of thread, a company whose products predominately include that thread was included along with a couple of consultants and a representative from NIST. To me, this was a good representative group of interests relating to the subject. I have attended similar meetings where a representative of the FAA or different branches of the military also participated.
The chair of these committees has a responsibility to ensure that a good mix of interests is involved in working on the standards whether they are new or a review of existing ones. This makes sense because if the committees were stacked from one industry or another, the resultant document would not be used across industries that may be affected by it. I have seen documents that came from stacked committees before and noticed they die a merciful death afterwards because of it.
Meetings can be quite picky at times when meeting time is taken up with debate over a single word until a consensus is reached. This is due to the experience of participants who have had battles with customers over such matters. These experiences often lead to additions to current standards and new ones in development to avoid misinterpretations where possible.
Meeting participants generally freely exchange technical and background information that is not always well known so participation in them can be helpful for everyone present even if that information does not always appear in the final document.
As you may already know, once a new standard is written that is not the end of it all. Most are set up for a review every five years during which time a number of comments or complaints received from users of the standard are reviewed and can be addressed in a revision of it.
You can attend meetings of committees that deal with standards you are interested in by contacting the organization that prepares them. But you should consider becoming an active member of a committee. While the usual rules of order are followed, the atmosphere is informal to retain everyone’s sanity. In the case of ASME, there are usually two or more meetings of one or two days a year. The work is voluntary and you have to take care of your own expenses but the information you will obtain can be priceless.
Start the new year off by joining in the process—you won’t regret it.