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Consensus Through Thoughtful Leadership

by Clare Coppa

Just as Ilan Ramon, the late astronaut from the U.S. Columbia, said “We are all the same people,” ASTM board member Akira Aoki has a knack for recognizing sameness among diversity. In international standards groups, he is a gifted mediator who finds similar goals among the cultural, industrial and governmental needs of standards developers. Aoki is executive advisor on international affairs to the Japanese Standards Association, committee chairman for the Japanese Industrial Standards Committee, and past International Organization for Standardization (ISO) vice-president on policy.

According to ASTM International president Jim Thomas, “Aoki represents a global perspective on standards and their application to trade which is essential to progress in our global economy. He possesses a quiet wisdom which continues to impact many segments of the global standards system.”

When Aoki chaired ISO/TC17 on Steel from 1981 to 1995, he guided about 60 chairs, secretariats, and conveners from ANSI/ASTM, AFNOR (France), BSI (UK), DIN (Germany) and JISC (Japan), who led numerous ISO subcommittees and working groups.

Aoki values a policy that TC17 established and ISO adopted for all of its technical committees. “Most industrial nations have had their own comfortable national standards for steel well before the principle of international consensus standardization set in,” says Aoki. “In this circumstance, it was sometimes very difficult to establish consensus among members. We in TC17 have successfully developed ‘TC17 Policy’ as the first technical committee policy document in the whole ISO system as early as 1983, the early period of my chairmanship. The major objectives of this document were to meet market needs as quickly as possible and to maximize the effective use of valuable and limited resources available for international standardization by prioritizing work items. A few years ago, a similar initiative was introduced as one of the mandates that all technical committees of ISO must observe.”

In that group, Aoki pinpointed issues and brought factions to agreement, says Phillip Speer of ASTM Committee A01 on Steel, who is active in ISO 22 years and ASTM 36 years. “I have attended several ISO/TC17 Plenary meetings as part of the USA delegation,” he says. “[Aoki] has always displayed a great knowledge of steel and the specifications for it. He is an excellent leader who is capable of combining different views into a satisfactory solution.”

A metallurgical engineer retired after 37 years with Inland Steel, Chicago, Speer identifies some challenges of international steel-standard development, and Aoki’s input as ISO/TC17 chairman. “Because steel is a mature industry,” says Speer, “various parts of the world have long established practices, rules and at times laws that ‘work’ even though they are unique and different. In many situations, changing systems or infrastructure as the result of changes to standards is expensive and may result in limited benefits.” Accomplishments occur when international standards developers, such as those in ASTM and ISO, mutually understand how and why content of standards are different, and then work to find solutions everyone can be comfortable with, he says. Those solutions must meet the needs of producers, users, and global product systems already in place, he notes, adding: “Mutual trust and respect is a prerequisite for progress to occur. Mr. Aoki is a true professional in that area.”

Perhaps Aoki’s ability for detailed problem- solving stems from his penchant for mechanical engineering for which he earned a master’s degree at the University of Tokyo in 1958. “I liked and still like machines and mechanism of all sorts,” Aoki says.

Before retiring 10 years ago from Nippon Steel Corporation, Tokyo, his career involved the management of cold-rolled steel production, standardization, and administration. “I found value in steel as the industry most dedicated to the development of the overall national economy,” Aoki says about Japan, the world’s third largest economy according to the U.S. World Factbook 2002.

When he is not helping to establish international standards, Aoki enjoys hiking, music, and reading. “My target is to walk more than eight thousand steps a day,” he says. “When I have time I walk along a neat brook (the Zenpukuji) and paths nearby. In good weather, I hike to low mountains in the west of Tokyo. I also like to listen to classical music; recently I assembled an audio amplifier using vacuum tubes. I often read books, in Japanese and English.”

Copyright 2003, ASTM