Setting Up a Problem Management Practice

Posted on 6 August 2020
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In Problem Management Defined, I discussed the basics of problem management. Then, I talked about the importance of problem management and presented some selected problem analysis techniques in Powering Up Problem Management.

Now that you're excited about problem management (as well you should be!), this final article of the series discusses setting up a problem management practice.

Good Practices for a Problem Management Practice

The following characteristics lead to a good problem management practice.

First, problem management cannot be a casual practice. Effective problem management practices are not something that an organization can simply turn on or off. Frankly, it is difficult to hone needed skills or grow organizational capabilities if problem management is treated as an exception rather than an ongoing activity. If an organization takes a casual approach, the organization will never reap the benefits of an ongoing problem management practice, such as improved reliability, higher product and service quality, and enhanced confidence and trust in the IT organization.

The problem management practice must be owned; that is, someone must have both the responsibility and the authority for driving problem management efforts within the organization. Having said that, the practice of problem management is a team sport. Problem management activities are not just one person's job, nor should a problem manager be expected to single-handedly log, investigate, diagnose, and develop a resolution for every problem.

Effective problem management practices typically result from an organization becoming highly skilled at a handful of techniques. In other words, get good at a few techniques, not just mediocre at several techniques. If there are questions about which techniques in which to invest time and effort, first look internally. Problem management becomes even more effective when leveraging methodologies and techniques already found within the organization. For example, if the organization is highly skilled at lean methods, the DMAIC model or Improvement Katas will be both recognizable and embraced by the organization.

Lastly, good problem management practices recognize the importance of taking a scientific approach to problem solving. Too many so-called "problem investigations" stop after uncovering a symptom, rather than continue investigation to determine actual causes. Taking a scientific approach develop a hypothesis, test that hypothesisand go where the data takes you (rather than jumping to conclusions) will ensure a problem management practice that is effective and brings noticeable value to the organization.

What Makes for a Good Problem Manager?

The problem manager role provides ownership and leadership for the problem management practice and is critical to how the problem management practice is perceived within the rest of the organization. What are some attributes of a good problem manager?

  • Has broad understanding of technology. A good problem manager isn't necessarily an expert in a technology domain but does have a good overall understanding of how technology works.
  • Possesses good understanding of the organization. Understands the capabilities and limitations of both the IT organization and the overall organization. A good problem manager must understand how the use of technology enables the organization to achieve business outcomes and co-create value.
  • Has good people skills. The technology part of problems is typically the easier part of problem investigation and resolution. The often more difficult aspect of a problem management practice is dealing with the people involved. A good problem manager exhibits patience, empathy, diplomacy, and leadership.
  • Drives collaboration. More than just cooperation, a good problem manager can get people to work together and share ideas toward achieving the shared goal of resolving problems.
  • Is inquisitive.  Not afraid to ask "Why?" and then ask "Why?" again to ensure that good solutions are being produced by problem management.
  • Uses data-driven thinking. Lets the facts and information discovered during problem investigation lead to further discovery or likely solutions. A good problem manager does not jump to conclusions.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Despite all the goodness that an effective problem management practice can bring to an organization, it may still be a challenge to obtain the needed support for formalizing the practice.

The fact is that analyzing problems and developing fixes to those problems may not be cheap. An effective problem management practice not only requires investments of time, in resources, in practicing good service management hygiene, and in tools and techniques, it also means that on occasion, highly skilled staff may need to become involved in problem investigation and resolution. When that happens, the projects and initiatives that those highly skilled staff were working on will be interrupted and delayed. Compounding the situation is that those highly skilled staff are highly compensated at a level commensurate with those skills.

This is why executive support of problem management is required. Executives must support having those highly skilled resources being pulled off a project and into solving a problem when the need is justified.

Getting (and Keeping) What You Ask For

Here are the three things that must be done to obtain and maintain executive support for the problem management practice.

  • Clearly define the criteria of a problem. The defining criteria of a problem must include factors like business risk and business impact. This helps executives understand why resolving problems is so important and enables executives to support and advocate for the problem management practice.
  • Regular marketing and communications. A regular communications and marketing program raises the awareness and importance of problem management. As part of this program, be sure to include ways that business associates can provide feedback and input to the problem management practice.
  • Capture and publish relevant and meaningful problem management measures. It's true, you cannot manage what you don't measure. And measurement is critical for continual improvement of the problem management practice.

Speaking of Measures

My overarching rule of measurement is to measure and report things that are relevant and meaningful to the viewing audience. Determining the measures that are most relevant and appropriate to an organization is a critical first step for effective measurement and reporting. Having said that, here's a suggested set of basic measures for a problem management practice:

  • Cost of solving a problem. Helps the organization understand the cost of resolving a problem, as well as helps the organization understand the importance of developing and implementing higher quality products and services to begin with. A trend of lower costs could indicate improvement in problem resolution capability.
  • Average time to close a problem. Can be used to determine if the problem management practice is being sufficiently resourced.
  • Number of known errors / number and percentage of known errors with documented workarounds. A measure of the effectiveness of the problem management practice.
  • Number and percentage of incidents resolved using a workaround. Another measure of the effectiveness of the problem management practice and the direct impact it has on the IT consumer.
  • Number of change requests raised by problem management. Illustrates the effectiveness of problem management practice in developing potential solutions for problems.
  • Number of problems / number and percentage of problems closed. Another way to determine if the problem management practice is sufficiently resourced. If the number of problems is growing faster than the rate of problems being closed, this may be indicative of the need for investment.

Invest in the Future

After reading this and the previous two articles of the series, I hope you've been inspired to invest in building your problem management practice. I look at problem management as an investment in the future, and the only way to get better at problem management is to do problem management. So, start small, learn as you go, build momentum, and celebrate successes!

By:Doug Tedder
About: Doug Tedder is a strategic, innovative, and solutions-driven IT service management professional with more than 20 years of progressive experience across a variety of industries. He’s a resourceful and hands-on leader with track record of success implementing ITSM and IT governance processes. Doug is a certified ITIL Expert and ISO/IEC 20000 Consultant Manager and holds many other industry certifications. In addition, Doug is an accredited ITIL Foundation trainer and HDI Support Center Analyst and Support Center Manager instructor.

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