Standardization—what does it really mean? (Guest Commentary)

-December 10, 2009

Editor's note: This article is part 2 in a series on Engineering a Competitive Test Strategy. See part 1, "Do you know your true cost of test?" Part 3, "How do you treat test like a product?" will follow next month.

Standardization is an interesting term in the test and measurement industry and other related high-tech fields involving major hardware and software investments. Standardization by definition refers to bringing something into conformity with a standard. Standards are loved and cursed by engineers who by the nature of their profession seek innovative solutions using the latest technology, which may or may not fall within the realm of conformity. Without standards, however, we would have a very difficult time communicating our findings with other engineers in measures and terms that are globally understood. Standards also help ensure the ideal end-user experience of interoperability and quality that consumers of our engineering breakthroughs come to expect. In the simplest of terms, standardization of test-and-measurement systems often brings about a mixed reaction and varied support by management and engineers because of its potential impact on the business and engineering projects. The focus of this article is to dissect the polarizing topic of standardization and how to determine whether elements of standardization may be a benefit to your organization. It will also discuss best practices for determining the right standard components for your organization.

Standardization done properly can have a significant impact on the efficiency and cost of test. Some organizations, such as Hella KGaA Hueck & Co (, an automotive electronics supplier, view their test-system standardization as a competitive advantage across all elements of their business, including development, deployment, and operations. Approaching the topic of standardization should be done carefully since it is as much, if not more, about the business, people, and process elements of achieving it as it is about the technical solution. Thus, ensuring you address each of these elements as a part of your plan is critical.

The first step to standardization is determining whether it will benefit your organization. Standardization is most often used to control growing costs or time to market related to having numerous sites, product lines, or programs, for which organizations typically develop independent test solutions for each. These independent efforts often result in compounding development, deployment, and operations and maintenance budgets and resources in the validation and manufacturing test areas of a business. In cases such as these, standardization is a highly effective tool for increasing development reuse, streamlining test system deployment, and reducing operating costs and downtime.

Once it has been determined that standardization could benefit your organization, it is important to scope out the focus of the standardization effort on the specific areas of greatest benefit. Some companies in the past have repeatedly struggled in their standardization efforts because they tried to standardize everything down to the coversheets on the TPS reports. This is what most engineers despise—standardization for the sake of standardization. Instead, identify which of the three vectors of standardization would be most valuable for your organization: validation to manufacturing, local to global deployment, or product-to-product lines. In some instances your organization may benefit from a combination of these focus areas; however, be careful to avoid taking on too much complexity by trying to solve everything at once.

Embarking on a standardization effort to achieve the aforementioned gains requires a significant investment of time and resources. Be sure you take the time to get proper buy-in from all of the necessary groups that will need to support your efforts. This includes your manager and representatives from other groups, sites and divisions, as well as business management who will ultimately provide the budget and dedicate resources for the standardization effort. While it is tempting to dive right into the details of finding a technical solution that will satisfy the needs of each group, the step of ensuring proper alignment across all elements of the business cannot be understated in terms of importance. Many engineering teams have spent hundreds of man-hours hashing out technical specs for a standardization only to forfeit their time and efforts due to misalignment on the standardization at the business level. A great way to help ensure business alignment is to find a sponsor at a director or officer level within your organization. Such sponsors can help champion the effort amongst their peers and also help reinforce measurable outcomes, deadlines, and ultimately consensus amongst the different groups.

When you are ready to take the first steps towards identifying a standard test software and hardware platform for your organization you should look to identify a project manager with strong cross-group leadership skills. You will also want to identify working groups for the key software, hardware, and services elements of your common core test standardization. The working groups should consist of a reasonable number of representatives from each key stakeholder in the standardization, whether it is across product lines, sites, or teams in the design flow. Remember to devote time in selecting members of the working groups since they will be taking on the lion's share of the work in identifying the right architecture and technologies for your standardization. Be sure you also set clear expectations on the amount of time that will be required from them (typically, up to 50% percent for a six- to 12-month period).

Once the core working groups begin their work, it is important to keep in mind the personal attachment each of the engineering owners throughout your organization has for its solutions and tools to solve its existing test application problems. Important consideration should be given to thoroughly understand and compare best practices for solving common test challenges by reviewing internal and external best practices and tools. One technique used successfully for identifying a common hardware I/O platform is to ask each of the groups to specify its measurement needs instead of its instrumentation needs. This helps constructively analyze the measurement needs across your organization instead of surveying everyone's list of preferred instruments in which it is typically impossible to find a common denominator. Another lesson learned in the standardization process is taken from old words of wisdom in which you are reminded to pick your battles carefully. Know which elements of your standardization effort are critical to its success and which ones you can concede if needed to maintain alignment and buy-in towards the overall process. This advice can be especially helpful when discussing the programming software for your standardization, which can tend to be a religious debate among most engineers. Many of the successful standardization efforts look for objective side-by-side comparisons, or perform their own trade studies on internal and external tools to encourage the objective, non-biased consideration of the right tools for the standard.

As mentioned, developing a common standardized test architecture and tool chain is not a trivial task. However, it can yield a high ROI, if done properly, and ultimately lead to a significant competitive advantage in terms of cost savings and time to market. It also benefits the engineers using the standard by allowing them to focus on new problems to solve instead of repeatedly solving problems that others in their organization have proven solutions for. The process of choosing a standard test platform is complex, and there are proven best practices that can save you countless hours and significantly improve your success. The points highlighted in this article will take you a long way towards this success. The rest is up to you to use your engineering and business knowledge to successfully navigate the people, process, and technology elements that can often only be taught as you are going through the journey.

Richard McDonell is senior group manager of product marketing at National Instruments.

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