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The Dark Side of Standardization

Updated on January 9, 2018
tamarawilhite profile image

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, an industrial engineer, a mother of two, and a published sci-fi and horror author.


ISO 9000 quality standards were intended to create a universal measure of quality and quality management. ASTM standards arose from the need to define a common terminology for industrial standards, standard metal alloys and universal test procedures.

The drive to standardize industrial processes and product design has spread into business practices. There are standards for everything from configuration management, software development processes, environmental regulations, labor practices and management procedures.

What is the dark side of standardization and the downside of standardization of everything?

While processes should be this smooth, the explosion of industrial standards makes meeting them all nearly impossible.
While processes should be this smooth, the explosion of industrial standards makes meeting them all nearly impossible. | Source

The Inefficiency Having Many Standards Cause

Standards are leading to the bureaucratization of science and technology. Engineers must learn and review an exploding number of standards to find out if their documents meet standards, instead of debugging and improving designs.

The growth in the number of standards has led to the growth in the number of meetings and time wasted “harmonizing” these standards.

Ever more standards require ever more meetings and oversight to review them, taking time away from productive activities.

The growth of the number of standards leads to the growth of a number of bureaucratically minded individuals to oversee the work of engineers, hindering their ability to actually innovate.

Politicization of Industry Standards

Standards compliance creates a clear conflict of interest for standards organizations. Standards organizations are paid for access to standards, and they receive money for training people in how to meet their standards. The profit motive behind the ongoing creation of evermore standards and their complex interpretations undermines the credibility of standards organizations.

Committee representatives are perfectly place to slip in requirements into standards that their companies meet that other companies do not meet. Industrial standards may be written to ensure that they fit current major industry players' products while forcing expensive design changes on those not sitting on the committees.

Standards are sometimes used to further political and ethical goals rather than ensure the development of compatible technologies. The existence of ISO labor standards that promote unionization, living wages" and social responsibility such as standard ISO 26000 are proof that debatable definitions of morality are seeping into what should be limited to making sure all of our car parts, computer peripherals and medical devices work together. For example, industry standards on social responsibility push unionization and "diversity".

Mission creep by standards organizations is pushing them into areas that are not cut and dried but purely a matter of opinion and priority. What levels of lead are toxic to humans? That question can be answered scientifically and confirmed by statistical analysis. What is global warming? Studies justifying costly environmental regulations have been shown to be based on models whose data is adjusted, hiding the fact global warming paused in 2000. Now the politicization of science has spread into the industrial standards organization with standards like ISO 14064. By moving into the political arena, standards organizations lose their focus on the compatibility of technology while the rate of technological progress is accelerating.

The Barriers Standards Create

Those in the developing world may have trouble finding and fulfilling standards paperwork, creating a barrier to selling their products at the same premium as ISO stamped products.

Excessive standardization that hinders the release of new technologies and new entrants to the market by imposing unnecessary costs on newcomers. For example, small businesses pay a disproportionate cost for access to ISO and ASTM standards as well as consulting fees to complete the paperwork to demonstrate that they meet these standards.

While many standards are available in English and other major languages like Chinese, the proliferation of standards hinders their translation into minority languages due to the sheer volume of documentation that now exists.


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