In IT management, a problem is the cause of one or more incidents. When an incident occurs, its root cause sometimes requires investigation, but not always. For example, some incidents are easily identifiable and obvious, like a forgotten password or a malfunctioning mouse. We use problem management when the cause is less obvious.
Problem management vs incident management
An incident is an unplanned interruption or reduction in quality of an IT service. A problem is the root cause of the incident. That means a problem causes the quality of the IT service to drop beyond normal and expected standards.
In effect, the difference between problem management and incident management is time. The incident is something that has already happened, but problem management can be proactive and ongoing. Instead of treating the symptom, it treats the cause. That’s why problem management is such a valuable skill.
Problem management metrics
Measuring the effectiveness of problem management is a key part of the resolution process. There are several common metrics used, including:
- The percentage of problems resolved within the timescales set out in the Service Level Agreement (SLA)
- The average cost of resolving a problem
- The percentage of major problems identified by Major Problem Reviews
- The percentage of actions identified in Major Problem Reviews that are completed
- The number of known errors identified
Problem management runs smoother when organizational skills are at their peak. Therefore, it’s a good idea to continually update a spreadsheet which monitors progress against the key metrics.
Problem management techniques
As with all management processes, there are techniques that form the basis of a successful problem management assignment. For example, it’s essential to log all incidents. A clear record of incidents means patterns and trends can be spotted and recurring issues can be dealt with.
You can also make a “top 10” list of problems. This tool is particularly useful for Major Problem Reviews. It also helps people think in a goal-oriented way.
Problems and causes often remain fully or partially hidden from view. In these cases, creativity will help identify the cause of the problem. There are various tools at your disposal for this, such as:
Brainstorming or mind mapping – a session that can include non-experts, but only works if everyone in the workplace is present.
Cause and effect analysis – also known as Fishbone cause and effect analysis, IT experts will find this tool useful, but non-experts may struggle to contribute to it.
Kepner-Tregoe Problem Analysis – a column of supporting evidence next to a column of possible causes and a third column that says “cause” or “not a cause”. The risk with this tool is that people may not complete them, especially if they’re unsure that they can contribute effectively.
Whichever techniques you use, remember that problem management is a key skill in IT. It’s one you should continually develop, since IT always presents new challenges as it advances and changes.