Guidance Standards?

We seem to be entering phase of a proliferation of guidance standards, especially within the quality assurance business.  The ISO9000 family, published by ISO, BSI, etc, is growing but few of the documents claim to be a true standard – establishing a baseline for compliance assessment.  We have guidance on terminology, guidance on competence, guidance on what should be considered for a management system, and so on…

I have a simple question to ask: why are standards bodies developing guidance?  They should be focusing on standards and letting the professionals (individuals and organisations e.g. the CQI) provide the guidance.  Guidance needs context.  Guidance needs a broad understanding of principles.  Guidance needs localised expertise.  Guidance needs to know the issues.  How on earth can this be provided totally out of context?  If we take ISO9001, there are numerous books written by competent professionals to provide guidance on its application.  Almost all focus on specific markets and few claim universal application – but they’re all quite weighty, recognising that such guidance cannot be compressed down to the size of a typical standard.  In fact, most of the guidance standards I’ve read so far need an expert to interpret them – to me, they fall into the category of monographs that should be published by professional institutes, universities, etc.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink what we want from our standards bodies.  Do we want them to set standards that establish a minimum acceptable level of compliance that can be accepted across markets and leave it there, or do we want them also trying to dictate how these standards should be met?  We don’t accept certification bodies providing consultancy services to help meet the their certification requirements, so why should we want the standards bodies setting a standard and then telling us how we must meet it?  Remember, neither the standard nor guidance is provided free.  With UK law, the actual statutory instruments (from the elected law-makers) are available online for free – you only have to pay to get the ACOPs that offer guidance on compliance (from the enforcement authority).

As I write this, there’s an ongoing debate about the position of ISO9004 as it seems to have become orphaned.  There’s a complaint that businesses aren’t buying and using the guidance documents – they just want the standards with which they are trying to comply.  Perhaps, by attaching the term “standard” to “guidance”, it’s to be an attempt to give such documents more authority.  My opinion is that we should let the standards bodies work with the professionals to develop and agree standards – and let the professionals, and professional bodies, practice their professions and provide the advice and support needed to comply – with proper context.

(Posted as a blog on 25th November 2011)
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