[This series of articles discusses the ISO 17000 family of standards, which are often obscure and complex.]

The first standard within the ISO 17000 series of standards is, of course, ISO 17000 itself. This standard deals with “vocabulary and general principles” related to the field of conformity assessment, meaning certification and accreditation.

You’ll find ISO 17000 referenced in many of the other standards in this family, typically under the “normative references” section. Some ISO standards authors insist that this makes ISO 17000 a mandatory requirement, and thus forces companies to adopt the terms and definitions from it. That’s untrue; while being listed as a normative reference makes it officially “linked” to the standard in which it’s referenced, ISO always allows you to deviate from its terms and definitions.

The standard’s origins come from a prior document called ISO Guide 2. That document was, at the time, the go-to source for definitions related to conformity assessment. Guide 2 was originally written in 1976 and underwent a series of updates on its own.  It was then converted to ISO 17000 in 2004. It underwent a major update in May of 2020, but then a “corrected” version was published in December of that same year.

While trying to be comprehensive, the introduction to ISO 17000 admits that the standard does not include any terms which are not universally adopted across all certification schemes. In such cases, ISO says, the terms would be defined by other specific scheme documents. So ISO 17000 only includes the terms that ISO feels can be applied universally, across all such schemes.

The standard suffers from a long-standing structural problem facing any ISO standard on vocabulary: rather than present the terms in simple alphabetical order, ISO presents them in (what it thinks are) logical groups. For example, ISO 17000 starts with Clause 4 on terms related to “conformity assessment in general” and then moves onto Clause 5, called “terms related to basic concepts.”

If you have no idea what the difference is between terms “in general” and those “related to basic concepts,” I don’t either.

Worse, there’s no logic to how the individual terms are presented within each section. They are not presented alphabetically, so Clause 5 starts with “specified requirement” and then moves on to “procedure” and then to “impartiality.” The sequence of the words appears entirely random. Most frustratingly, they don’t even provide an alphabetical index at the end. As a result, navigating ISO 17000 is a nightmare, and requires using the search feature inside your PDF reader. Not ideal.

As usual, ISO 17000 has grown into a monster in both size and cover price. Whereas Guide 2 was a much shorter document (and included an index, thank you), ISO 17000 has grown into a 30-page leviathan with a number of dubious annexes and silly graphics.

Annex A on “Principles of Conformity Assessment” is the type of leather-elbowed, “professors waxing philosophick” kind of schtick we’ve come to see from ISO’s latter-day publications. Just take a look at this beastly paragraph:

A.2.2 Some consideration can be necessary regarding the selection of the object of conformity assessment. Frequently, the object can be a large number of identical items, ongoing production, a continuous process or a system, or can involve numerous locations. In such cases, representative sampling can be necessary. For example, the sampling plan for river water related to a demonstration that pollution requirements are fulfilled would be an example of a sizeable and significant sampling activity. However, occasionally the object can be the whole population, for instance when a single, individual product is the object of conformity assessment. Even in such cases, sampling can be necessary to select a part of the entire object that is representative of the whole (e.g. selection of critical parts of a bridge for a determination of material fatigue).

ISO 17000 was produced by CASCO, and they just loved this sort of pompous posturing. This makes the standard wholly unapproachable, overpriced, and at least partially unusable.

There remains, however, a portion that is usable. The definitions themselves are okay (not great), but useful as far as helping to settle disputes during conformity assessment activities. If two assessors get into a conflict over the meaning of a word, ISO 17000 can act as the official tie-breaker. Again, however, you will have to use the search feature to find the information.

Another word of caution: ISO 17000 is not the final source for definitions even within the ISO 17000 family. Other standards exist which repeat (and sometimes contradict) the definitions provided in ISO 17000. For example, ISO/TS 17027 provides terminology “related to related to competence of persons used for certification of persons.” Many terms in 17027 are simply rehashed versions of those appearing in 17000, but with some additional words added related to “persons.” As a result, there is no single source of truth for ISO definitions.

In short, ISO is tasked with standardizing things, but can’t standardize its own official terms.

Meaning, that not only is navigating within ISO 17000 tricky, but you might not even find the terms you are looking for, and have to hunt them down in other ISO standards. All of that is, of course, convenient to ISO’s revenue stream.

About Christopher Paris

Christopher Paris is the founder and VP Operations of Oxebridge. He has over 30 years' experience implementing ISO 9001 and AS9100 systems, and is a vocal advocate for the development and use of standards from the point of view of actual users. He is the author of Surviving ISO 9001 and Surviving AS9100. He reviews wines for the irreverent wine blog, Winepisser.

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