ISO Turns 70
The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has had a good run over the last seven decades. Formed in the aftermath of World War Two, it is now the largest developer and publisher of international standards in the world. The organisation has a hand in setting standards covering almost all aspects of technology and business with the exception of electrical and electronic engineering standards, which are covered by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and telecommunication standards, which come under the International Telegraph Union (ITU).
The ISO family of 163 members, representing almost every country in the world, continues to ensure positive change in our evolving world.
As ISO’s official publication, ISO Focus, noted, “Of course, humans have been relying on standard measurements, processes, and technology in general, since ancient times. But when ISO came into being 70 years ago, something unique happened. For the first time, standards on several technical fields – from screws to aircraft – were being consistently developed with the best expertise the world had to offer, and subsequently adopted at a global level. Hence the scale of their benefits was multiplied exponentially and it became possible to pool together research, talent and capacity from all corners of the world.”
ISO Takes Root
The seeds of the “ISO”, which is derived from the Greek word “isos” meaning “equal”, were sown in 1946 when delegates from 25 countries gathered in London to discuss the future of standardisation. The war had just ended and there was renewed interest and growing support for standardisation to help in the reconstruction. On 23 February 1947, the ISO was officially launched.
The purpose of the organisation was to facilitate the co-ordination and unification of standards developed by its member bodies, all of which were national standardisation entities in their respective countries. Membership would be open to all countries which had interest in collaborating, with equal rights and equal duties.
Following the formation, 67 technical committees were set up in specific technical fields, such as screw threads, marine technology, food, textiles, paints and laboratory equipment, with a mandate to develop international standards.
Till today, the bulk of the work of the ISO is done by the 2,700 technical committees, subcommittees and working groups. Each committee and subcommittee is headed by a secretariat from one of the member organisations.
The first standard, the ISO/R 1:1951, standard reference temperature for industrial length measurements, was developed by technical committee ISO/TC3, Limits and fits (now renamed ISO/TC213) in 1951. Today, there are over 21,500 standards supporting all the important technological, environmental and social changes.
Singapore became a member of the ISO in 1966, less than a year after it gained independence, as it appreciated the integral role standards played in the development of a modern nation state. Represented by SPRING Singapore, it plays an active role in developing and promoting the use of standards.
Singapore is a participating member or observer in more than 140 technical committees and working groups of the ISO. It also participates actively in other international and regional quality and standards fora.
Singapore also plays host to ISO’s regional office – its first outside its headquarters in Geneva. Established in September 2013, the office seeks to strengthen support for its members and increase its outreach to industry players, governmental officials and other key stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific region.
Challenges for the Future
ISO is at an important juncture as it celebrates its 70th anniversary. Said ISO president Dr Zhang Xiaogang, “For the past 70 years, ISO has developed standards that drive industrial progress, promote global commerce and improve health, safety and the environment. But this is just the beginning. Looking to the future, it is clear that our world faces many challenges that cut across national borders. Climate change, water scarcity, cyber security and large-scale migration are just some of the issues we face today that require integrated international actions.”
Many of these challenges have been included in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations as part of its 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Launched in 2015, the SDGs set ambitious targets for the next 15 years and help concentrate international action to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all.
“The ISO community has many standards that can help organisations and companies address this agenda. We are ready to provide efficient tools to help the different communities worldwide face up to these challenges and shape a better world. The future of standardisation is promising,” Dr Zhang added.
ISO 9000 FAMILY OF QUALITY MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
The ISO 9000 started the management system standard (MSS) evolution, inspiring over 60 ISO standards for better management across key sectors, raising levels of management practice, efficiency and effectiveness in industrial, service and business organisations around the world. Today, over 1.5 million ISO MSS certifications have been issued in over 170 countries.
Given its longevity, ISO 9001 for quality management alone accounts for more than 1 million certifications, followed by over 320,0000 ISO 14001 certifications for environmental management systems.
Things could not have been more different when it was first published. Some deemed it to be appropriate only for manufacturing, while others feared it would stifle the creativity and innovative spirit of companies struggling to implement a system which they perceived as rigid and bureaucratic.
The standard received a boost in the late 1980s when Mrs Margaret Thatcher, then the British Prime Minister, challenged the nation’s industry to match Japan in design and quality. As Charles Corrie, secretary of technical subcommittee ISO/TC 176/SC 2, quality systems, who was closely involved in the development of the ISO 9001, recalled, “Mrs Thatcher provided the impetus by assigning significantly enhanced levels of funding to establish a national quality programme that encouraged companies to implement ISO 9001. Awareness of the value of the quality management soared, and 80% of the early ISO 9001 certifications took place in the United Kingdom (UK). In the years that followed, UK industry closed the quality gap with Japan dramatically, thanks in no small way to the impact of ISO 9001.”
ISO 9001 has undergone substantial revision since 1987, spurred on by market pressures to ensure products and services consistently meet customers’ requirements and quality. It was first revised in 1994, then in 2000 and 2008, and most recently in 2015. The latest upgrade was in response to big changes in technology, business diversity and global commerce. It also reflected the increased prominence of the services sector.
ISO 9001 also helped to spawn families of related standards and sector-specific versions such as AS 9100, the aerospace version of ISO 9001, TL 9000 for the telecoms community, QS 9000 for the automotive industry, ISO 13485 for the medical device industry and ISO 22000 for food safety management.