Standards are written by manufacturers and users, government officials, experts, academics, consultants – anyone with knowledge of the product, process or service, an understanding of how to establish common performance characteristics and guidelines, and a willingness to devote time and energy to the process.

There are three broad categories of standards:

  • Government standards are generally developed through a formal rulemaking process. Even a government agency’s decision to use voluntary standards must go through notice-and-comment rulemaking. When issued as final rules, they are the law of the land.
  • Company standards are specifications that are developed in-house and made available widely. A good example is the PC. IBM’s decision to let other computer makers see and copy the PC’s architecture helped establish its dominance.
  • The most common type of standard is the voluntary standard, developed by consensus and nationally recognized.

Voluntary standards share certain important principles.

First, they are established by consensus. Note that this does not mean unanimity – standards seldom satisfy all interests equally. But they are developed using a process that ensures that all views are heard and considered, and that conflicts are resolved where possible, so that the final product represents a general agreement among all concerned parties.

Standards must be impartial, and not be used to restrict commerce. They are, after all, agreements among competitors, who must be careful not to write specifications that would squeeze another company’s product out of the market, or require product approvals available only to certain companies. Standards and certification activities fall under close scrutiny by the US Justice Department, as well as international trade agreements.

All standards establish a baseline of performance. They are seldom the leading edge of technology, but rather a set of essential performance characteristics. This enables consumers to choose from a range of products from companies that compete on design, comfort, fit, durability, appearance, cost, service etc – but not on the performance requirements.