There’s more to test capability improvement than just process improvement

New Thinking 7 September 2012 Rob O'Connell

I’ve been thinking lately about the area and terminology of “process improvement”. It’s an area I’ve worked in for some time, have a great interest in and some successes with, as well as admittedly, the odd tactical defeat. It’s never boring since every context, industry and company you work with throws out differing people challenges.

I’ve been thinking about how we use (and often misuse) the term “process improvement”; how we try to oversimplify or overcomplicate or look to sell a tool or implement a series of templates or processes while forgetting what the end point for the improvement actually was – the on-going knowledge, uplift and enablement – enablement of individuals, business units and organisations.

Anyone who has ever talked to me on the subject knows my views, that testing practices (or any practice or function in IT for that matter) and organisations are like people because they are made up of people. They have good and bad habits, they have strengths and weaknesses and they change and evolve over time. They also have politics and social frailties at their core. And improvement isn’t a linear activity; it doesn’t just go in one direction. Anyone who says otherwise is selling you something that’s unlikely to work.

Organisations can become better and worse at delivering their required outcomes, including their testing. This can partly be due to the obvious failures, such as people not delivering, being overburdened, lazy or disengaged, delivering things as they always have without thought or analysis and even lacking the skills required to deliver the outputs as required. All of these symptoms originate from the same issue – a lack of investment – investment in people, in challenging what is done and the ways they are done, the appropriateness and applicability of the techniques and thinking that go into the testing and the right aspects and tools to enable efficiency progress.

The idea of process improvement is often described as “doing something” to our organisation or “being better” than today or another company. But it too often focuses on the tools or the practices and processes and misses the fundamental truth. Test maturity or improvement is only partly about process. It is also about people uplift and creating structures that enable competency and capability to thrive in your organisation in a testing context.

For me, test capability improvement in any of these areas comes down to the concerted (and organisationally) collective vision that everyone has been included and bought into. Top-down change without bottom-up engagement is rarely successful and doesn’t outlast the person driving the change. It also doesn’t work from the ‘stratosphere’. Maturity and improvement models are useful structures or frameworks, as are structures for displaying what mature processes and endemic change and improvement could look like. But they don’t make the change. People do.

So how do you change and improve your testing organisation? Or even better, how do you enable change and ensure that it becomes endemic in your company? The answer is simple, the delivery is hard.

Invest in your people. Give them the testing challenges, the domain challenges and the people/political challenges to grow within a framework that supports their learning. Change the way you lead your people, invest in your testing and look to what your challenges are and challenge your business partners to do the same. Just because it has always been done a certain way doesn’t make it right or mean it can’t be done better. It may in fact mean it is time for a step change and new evolution. And just because you don’t have the skills and capability internally, this doesn’t mean that you should accept that. Look for help and challenge yourself and your staff to find different ideas on how they can deliver better value to your internal and external customers. Test capability uplift costs money, as does IT in general, but targeting your investment and rationalising the benefits against the costs is a business prerogative and, as part of a business, you need to add continued value and benefit to your organisation.

Even in an outsourced engagement, your internal staff uplift can have real benefits, as can test capability maturity. They can begin to ask better, more informed questions. They can start to set smarter SLAs and manage the supplier relationships for better outcomes. While it might be painful initially, the clarity of the “offer and expectation” between your company and suppliers will increase efficiency and enjoyment in the process.

It can also make a big difference to your people management and retention policies, knowledge management and intellectual property retention. All of these aspects are really important to your continued business and improvement too, aren’t they?

Don’t know where to start but want to help your organisation? Ask a question. Ask it of your business sponsor, your project manager, your head of testing, your general manager: “Do you think you get what you need from testing today?”. If the answer is no, then ask the follow-on question: “Where do we need to invest to start to improve our capability?”.