Winning with ITIL Problem Management

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Winning with ITIL Problem Management

“What’s the problem with problem management?” might be a corny way to start this blog, but it’s a question many organisations need to ask (and get answered). Firstly, because of the potential for confusion over what ITIL problem management is. Secondly, because of the potential difficulties (with ITIL problem management) organisations commonly experience. To help, this blog covers both of these areas and offers guidance on how to win with ITIL problem management. The best place to start is with what ITIL problem management is.

ITIL problem management defined

ITIL 4 defines a problem as the:

…cause, or potential cause, of one or more incidents.

While the problem management practice helps to:

… reduce the likelihood and impact of incidents by identifying actual and potential causes of incidents and managing workarounds and known errors.

Source: AXELOS, Problem Management ITIL 4 Practice Guide (2020)

The confusion with incident management

While not the only way that ITIL problem management is misunderstood, the confusion between problem management and incident management is longstanding. Usually, because of the terminology and the lack of separation between problems and incidents, where:

  • Incidents are “break-fix” situations, and ITIL incident management focuses on the required resolutions, restoring service and the ability to work ASAP.
  • Problems cause incidents, and ITIL problem management uses root-cause analysis to identify resolutions or workarounds that reduce the level and impact of what are repeating incidents.

But this isn’t the only way organisations can be confused over whether they are “doing” ITIL problem management or not.

Major incident reviews – what some organisations consider problem management

In addition to the long-held confusion of ITIL problem management with incident management, another common misunderstanding is when organisations use problem management tools and techniques when undertaking major incident reviews. This review activity might be considered a formal problem management capability.

One could argue that it is problem management. However, it’s a reactive discipline rather than the proactive focus on problems and their root causes espoused by the ITIL problem management best practice guidance.

These two “misunderstanding” issues are only the start for organisations seeking to win with ITIL problem management, with execution issues also often preventing problem management success.

ITIL problem management execution issues

The first potential execution issue is a biggie. This success barrier is obtaining the funding required for ITIL problem management. Without adequate funding, not only is problem management something that is done as an add-on to incident management (which perpetuates the potential for confusion), but it’s also likely that it never gets done (given the firefighting nature of IT support). For your organisation to win with ITIL problem management, there needs to be business-as-usual (BAU) funding or an initial project that can be used to demonstrate the value of problem management and the need for BAU funding going forward.

Even with adequate funding, there are still potentially more execution issues. These issues are likely to adversely affect, or even derail, your organisation’s ITIL problem management operations and outcomes if unaddressed:

  • Problem management personnel also have other IT service management (ITSM) responsibilities. If these are IT support related, these other responsibilities will likely be prioritised ahead of the required ITIL problem management activities.
  • The people assigned to ITIL problem management are ill-equipped for their responsibilities. This issue includes missing skills or aptitudes and insufficient training (including problem management techniques), potentially compounded by the lack of suitable technology enablement.
  • Organisations underestimate the effort required for ITIL problem management. There is still insufficient problem management resource, and the limited results contribute to the view that ITIL problem management is labour-intensive relative to the achieved results.
  • Performance metrics are either missing or insufficient to demonstrate the value of ITIL problem management. This issue is particularly relevant when the performance metrics are added belatedly.

How to win with ITIL problem management

The challenges organisations have encountered with ITIL problem management have contributed to issue lists such as the one above, but their learnings have also created a body of guidance that helps others succeed. Some advice comes directly from the issues – for example, the need to:

  • Ensure that everyone understands what ITIL problem management is and isn’t
  • Create a business case for the required ITIL problem management resources
  • Agree on appropriate ITIL problem management success factors and metrics as early as possible
  • Start small if needed – to get the required problem management backing and funding once the value has been demonstrated
  • Ringfence the acquired problem management resources (such they can actually undertake it)
  • Train people in problem management root-cause analysis techniques
  • Recognise that suitable ITSM tooling will facilitate ITIL problem management operations and outcomes.

There are, however, two other key tips for increasing the probability of your organisation winning with ITIL problem management:

  1. Viewing problem management as an end-to-end capability – this approach avoids too much effort being assigned to problem identification when the business value comes from problem resolution.
  2. Ensuring that problem management and other ITSM capabilities are integrated – such that the problem management capability isn’t operated as an “island” with the data and resource limitations this brings.

If you are interested in learning more about how to win with ITIL Problem Management, join our next ITIL 4 Foundation Course.

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