Sunday, June 24, 2012

Shifting the Burden on Problem Management

"The cure can be worse than the disease" - Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline

This is another of an irregular series of posts inspired by Senge's book. In systems thinking, one of the most frequent archetypes is called "shifting the burden". We have all seen examples of this. A common example is when someone deals with the stress of everyday living by turning to alcohol, drugs and other addictions.

IT organizations frequently shift the burden when it comes to incidents. Here's a simplified systems model of what we often see:

As a Service Desk manager, our first instinct to improve how we deliver service is to focus on handling incidents faster. We focus on templates, scripts, etc in order to reduce the time needed to handle a call. We reduce time off the phone for training and focus on getting people off the phone faster. This allows the team to answer the next call more quickly.

Nothing wrong with that on the surface, yet this by itself is a doomed strategy. As the business changes, IT systems either become less aligned to the business or IT makes system changes to respond. Either way, we almost certainly will experience increased incident volume. We then work even harder to increase throughput - more training, scripts, templates, and maybe we even get more staff.

Here are the main downsides over time:

  • as you get more efficient, we have to expend more and more effort to get the same amount of increase
  • one of the frequent casualties of increased throughput is lower quality
The end result is an Incident Management process that delivers shoddy service, provides little useful data, and burns out its good staff. All of these reduce IT's reputation and ultimately drive a wedge between IT and the rest of the business. Quite a vicious circle!

In order to get leverage on incident response, we need to focus on reducing the causes of incidents. While it does not return immediate dividends, as problems are eliminated from IT systems, we begin to see fewer incidents. This improves incident responsiveness and frees up more time for investigating problems. 

Now instead of a vicious circle, we get a virtuous one. Fewer incidents mean that employees can focus on serving customers and delivering value. IT systems are delivering more value and has a better reputation.

In summary, it can be very easy to get fixated on responding to events faster. This is rarely a path to success. Instead, focus on the patterns causing the events. The end result will often be more satisfying work that provides more value to our organizations.

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