What is the problem with problem management?


“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes”, Henri J. Kaiser

Problem solving is a very human specific capability that can be honed as time elapses. Most of us are great solvers yet have difficulties isolating what really is the problem. Lets look at the root cause for this and how organizations take it.

Roots by Eva the Weaver at Flickr - Some rights reserved

Roots by Eva the Weaver at Flickr - Some rights reserved

More context for problem management is in order. On Rob England’s Review of recent ITIL studies paper, one of the studies analysed gives this quantitative information:

“problem management – a process that requires organizational maturity and commitment – is the ITIL process most firms are currently [2010] implementing (24%) or planning to implement (24%). Furthermore, 43% currently follow ITIL problem management processes, reflecting a 91% adoption/soon-to-be-adopted rate among those surveyed.”

It looks as everyone has joined the tribe. But as Karen Ferris comments, from her own experience, organizations have problem management in paper but not in practice, actually having major incident activities going on and calling it problem management as opposed to regularly applying root cause analysis techniques.

I’ve found this to be true here in Portugal too. There’s a blur between incident and problem activities. Due to greater visibility (and pressure from business) on incident resolution, IT folks avoid problem solving and keep a reactive operational attitude while at the same time mortify themselves for not having done it using problem management techniques.

Truth be said, reactive problem management activities are pretty similar to incident management lifecycle, even though it introduces Known Error handling. Incident management and service desk, are the traditional first wave on service management adoption. This means that when problem management concepts and activities are introduced, technical oriented people will already have an incident-centric mindset way of doing things that has to change. Separating cause from symptoms activities is hard because they are so interdependent and before the coming of problem management all was incident management territory.

So care should be taken to clarify it’s own goals, focus and activities so it’s not confused with incident management on steroids. It’s on the proactive facet that problem management really stands on its own, thus a culture of preventing coupled with problem solving techniques has to be instilled.

Besides solving problems because they are causing impact right now, one can look at weak points of our management resources and capabilities in order to effectively remove latent causes of under performance or failure. So, it is an organizational capability that can switch from chaotic OPEX costs to predictable CAPEX costs (for more on this do check this article from Antonio Valle).

This systematic, proactive error seek and eliminate path deliberately walks way of ingrained reactive incident modus operandi, thus providing a new frame of work where people can truly adopt problem management without preconceived habits.

More on this topic here:

  • A deceptively simple book on problem solving by Ken Watanabe (not the actor):
  • Hank Marquis wrote good posts on this
  • Mush and Room take on the problem versus incident
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2 Responses to “What is the problem with problem management?”

  1. itsm_alexander Says:

    There does seem to be confusion over the difference between Incident and Problem, especially those not well versed in ITSM. There is also some issue between Request and Incident, but that I suppose, is neither here nor there.

    As to Problem Management, after establishing what it is, and what the goals are, there could still be various cultural and political issues if Problem Management is not introduced and handled appropriately. Nobody wants to be pointed out as being “the problem” or take the “blame” for some large outage/disruption of service. Incident Management falls much more in line with the “hero” mode of IT, where as Problem Management threatens that status quo.

    Problem Management should not be about “finding the throat to choke” but more about Continual Service Improvement. Getting people to do that, and believe in that, is as hard (if not harder) to convince them that Incident is not Problem.

  2. James Richardson Says:

    Interesting topic and I agree it can sometimes be blurry line between incident and Problem Management.

    I like Alexander’s comment re attributing blame. In my experience as a Problem Manager this can cause Problems. I started writing more here but it turned into a rant, which I will save you from, moving on…

    Problem Management activities certainly take place during Incidents and it makes sense to do so. A recurring incident or a long running impact will adopt more of a problem management style investigation. To grey the lines but ensure momentum is not lost on incident investigations, once an Incident is resolved assign Problem Management actions. For example; retain the logs on server A, investigate application B’s logs, investigate the network between A & B, which can serve the customer better though quicker answers and as such less chance of a recurrence.

    The Problem Manager

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