“Standardize” is not a synonym for “improve”.

When I was working for a mega corporation, one of the recurring battles that I had to fight was the standardization battle. The assumption was “if a little standardization is a good thing, then a lot of standardization must be even better”. Of course this is simply not true. Excessive standardization stifle’s creativity, decreases productivity and increases risk. Standardization is a useful tool to increase productivity where it appropriate. But just as you shouldn’t hammer in screw, there are places where you think about deregulating. not standardizing.

Recently I found myself in a conversation with a new coworker who asked me “So what are you standardizing?” (out of the blue, no context). I was a bit mystified and replied that I wasn’t standardizing anything, I was developing code. On a separate occasion he asked me if I had any ideas how we could “standardize our testing”.

One of the sad truths at my current workplace is we simply don’t have enough testing going. We need to improve our testing. We need to extend it. We need to develop it. We don’t need to standardize it though… what good would that do?

To standardize something is to take something is inhomogeneous and make it more homogeneous. This is a useful technique — for example standardizing communication protocols and power outlets has been a tremendous boon. In a software shop that is just doing chaotic testing you don’t start with the question “how can I standardize this” you start with the question “how can I improve this”. It may be that developing standards is a one of tools you use, but it may not be. In our shop we have three teams — a back-end team, a middleware team, and a front-end team.

For the back-end team we need more unit tests, automated functionality tests, and automated integration tests. We don’t really need any manual test execution. For the front-end it’s quite different. There we need a database of manually run usability tests, most of which will probably have to be executed manually. This means that even the testing schedules will likely have to be quite different, meaning standardization will probably only play a small role, although formalization might play a larger one.

So all of this went through my head when the question was asked and I replied “Standardization is wrong word. We need to improve our testing. We are working on that.”. The disturbing thing in the conversation is the realization that the word “standardization” seems to have lost its very specific meaning. I suspect that when managers and executives get in a room and someone says “We have standardized our testing”, everyone responds “bravo, well done”, rather than asking the obvious question — “what benefit did the standardization bring?”.