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Problem Management

Updated: Apr 26

Introduction


Any IT team's ability to effectively manage and resolve problems is critical for maintaining service reliability and efficiency.


Problem management, a core discipline within IT service management, strategically addresses the root causes of incidents to prevent their recurrence and minimise their impact on business operations.


Purpose

The primary goal of problem management is to minimise the adverse effects of incidents and errors within the IT infrastructure. By identifying the underlying causes of frequent disruptions, problem management works proactively to rectify faults before they affect users and reactively to ensure that incidents do not recur.


Scope

This practice encompasses a range of activities, from problem detection and diagnosis to solution development and implementation. It involves a systematic approach to logging, analysing, and resolving problems, ensuring that lessons learned are used to prevent future issues.


Key Benefits of Problem Management

Implementing effective problem management delivers several key benefits:


  • Increased reliability of IT services through reduced number and severity of incidents.

  • Enhanced operational efficiency by reducing downtime and minimising the impact of issues on business-critical operations.

  • Improved customer satisfaction as the frequency and impact of service disruptions decrease.

  • Support for continual service improvement by providing insights into underlying issues and promoting long-term solutions.


Basic Concepts and Terms


Problem Management Defined

In IT service management, a "problem" is the underlying cause of one or more incidents.


Unlike incidents, which are disruptions or reductions in service quality, problems are the root causes that potentially give rise to these incidents.


Proactive vs. Reactive Problem Management


Proactive Problem Management involves identifying and resolving problems before incidents occur. This approach relies on thoroughly analysing historical data, trends, and regular system checks to predict and mitigate potential issues that could disrupt services.


Reactive Problem Management is triggered by incidents that have already occurred. The focus here is on diagnosing the underlying problems that caused the incidents and developing solutions to prevent recurrence. This approach is essential for immediate incident response and long-term preventative strategies.


Processes in Problem Management

Problem management incorporates several structured processes designed to effectively identify, analyse, control, and eliminate problems within IT services. These processes ensure problems are addressed systematically, minimising their impact on business operations.


Proactive Problem Identification

This process involves identifying potential problems and vulnerabilities before they manifest as incidents. It includes regular reviews of system logs, performance data, and user feedback to detect any signs of underlying issues.


Organisations can proactively identify potential problems and implement preventive measures to avoid disruptions.


Key activities;


  1. Systematic Monitoring: Regularly monitor IT systems and services to detect early signs of trouble. This includes performance metrics, system logs, and other operational data.

  2. Trend Analysis: Analysing historical data to identify patterns or recurring issues that could indicate underlying problems. This often involves statistical methods to project future occurrences based on past events.

  3. Risk Assessment: Evaluating the potential risks associated with identified vulnerabilities or anomalies. This involves assessing the likelihood and potential impact of incidents arising from these issues.

  4. Review of Changes: Examining recent changes to the IT environment that might introduce new vulnerabilities. This includes updates, patches, and configuration changes.

  5. Feedback Evaluation: Collecting and analysing feedback from users, IT staff, and other stakeholders to identify potential problems. This can provide practical insights into issues that are not easily detected through automated systems.

  6. Documentation and Reporting: Document findings and prepare reports outlining potential problems, possible impacts, and recommended preventive measures.


Reactive Problem Identification

When incidents occur, reactive problem identification aims to uncover and document the underlying causes.


This process starts with an incident analysis to track back to the root causes, often requiring detailed investigation and collaboration across multiple IT teams.


Activities;


  1. Incident Analysis: Involves analysing incidents to identify common characteristics or trends that might suggest a deeper, underlying problem. This is often the first step in reactive problem identification, using detailed logs and incident reports.

  2. Root Cause Analysis: Employing techniques such as the 5 Whys, fishbone diagrams, or fault tree analysis to drill down into the incident details and uncover the root cause(s) of problems.

  3. Recording and Categorisation: Logging detailed information about the identified problem, including the nature of the issue, affected systems, and initial assessments of impact and urgency. Categorising the problem based on predefined criteria to facilitate effective management and resolution.

  4. Assignment to Teams: Assigning the problem to the appropriate technical team or specialist based on the nature and complexity of the issue. This ensures that the right expertise is applied to resolve the problem effectively.

  5. Development of Action Plans: Creating detailed action plans to address and resolve the root causes identified. This may include temporary fixes to mitigate impact while a permanent solution is being developed.

  6. Collaboration and Communication: Facilitating communication between different teams and stakeholders involved in the incident and problem management processes. This ensures all parties are informed and can contribute to resolving the issue.


Problem Control


Once a problem is identified, the problem control process involves managing and controlling the problem to prevent further incidents while a permanent solution is being developed.


This includes recording details about the problem, prioritising it based on its impact and urgency, and assigning it to the appropriate team for resolution.


  1. Problem Logging and Documentation: Once a problem is identified, it is formally logged, and detailed documentation is created. This includes a comprehensive description of the problem, the impact assessment, urgency, and related incidents.

  2. Problem Prioritisation: Problems are prioritised based on their impact on the business and the urgency with which they need to be addressed. This helps allocate the appropriate resources and schedule the necessary actions efficiently.

  3. Problem Analysis: This involves a deeper analysis of the problem to understand its nature, causes, and contributing factors. Techniques like root cause analysis may be employed to investigate the problem thoroughly.

  4. Development of Resolution Strategies: Based on the analysis, various strategies for resolving the problem are developed. These might involve temporary workarounds to mitigate the impact or more permanent solutions to eliminate the problem.

  5. Assignment of Ownership: An individual or team is responsible for managing the problem through to resolution. This includes overseeing the implementation of solutions and monitoring the outcomes.

  6. Monitoring Progress and Impact: Continuous monitoring of the problem resolution process is essential to ensure effective actions. Based on the ongoing impact and feedback received, adjustments are made as necessary.

  7. Communication: All relevant stakeholders are regularly updated about the problem's status, the steps to resolve it, and any changes in the expected outcomes. Effective communication helps manage expectations and coordinate efforts across different teams.



Error Control

Error control focuses on resolving known errors identified during the problem control phase. Solutions may involve temporary workarounds or permanent fixes. This process ensures that all identified errors are systematically addressed, with solutions tested and implemented to prevent recurrence.


  1. Error Identification: After problems are analysed and their underlying errors identified, these errors are logged as known errors. This includes detailed documentation of the error's characteristics, associated problems, and related incidents.

  2. Error Assessment: Each identified error is assessed for its impact on services and the business. This assessment helps understand the urgency and priority of addressing the error.

  3. Solution Development: Solutions are developed to address the known errors, including temporary workarounds and permanent fixes. The solutions aim to mitigate the error's impact or remove the underlying cause altogether.

  4. Solution Testing and Implementation: Proposed solutions are thoroughly tested to ensure they effectively resolve the error without introducing new issues. Once validated, the solutions are implemented across the affected systems.

  5. Monitoring and Review: After implementing solutions, continuous monitoring is essential to ensure the error has been adequately controlled or resolved. This involves tracking the solution's effectiveness and identifying any unintended consequences.

  6. Error Closure: If the error is successfully resolved and no longer poses a risk to business operations, it can be closed in the error log. The error log documents the closure and a summary of the error-handling process and the outcomes.

  7. Communication and Documentation: Regular communication with stakeholders is maintained throughout the error control process to keep them informed of progress and any significant developments. Additionally, comprehensive documentation is maintained for audit purposes and future reference, enhancing the knowledge base for problem and error management.


Relationship with Other Practices

Problem management is deeply interconnected with several other ITIL practices, enhancing the efficiency and effectiveness of IT service management.


Understanding these relationships is crucial for a holistic approach to managing IT services.


Incident Management

Problem management and incident management are closely related. While incident management focuses on restoring service operations as quickly as possible, problem management aims to identify and resolve the root causes of incidents. Efficient problem management reduces the frequency and impact of incidents, thereby decreasing the workload on incident management.


Change Enablement

Problem management often identifies the need for changes to prevent the recurrence of problems. The change enablement practice then comes into play to ensure that these changes are assessed, approved, implemented, and reviewed in a controlled manner. This relationship ensures that changes to address problems do not introduce new issues.


Configuration Management

Effective problem management relies on accurate and up-to-date configuration data to analyse and resolve problems. Configuration management provides the necessary information about the IT infrastructure, which helps identify potential problems and their impacts on various services and components.


Risk Management

Problem management contributes to risk management by identifying and mitigating risks associated with problem occurrence. By addressing the root causes of problems, problem management reduces the likelihood of potential disruptions and their impact on business operations.


Knowledge Management

Knowledge management supports problem management by providing a repository of known errors, solutions, and workarounds. This enables quicker diagnosis and resolution of problems and aids in effectively sharing information across the IT team.


Continual Improvement

Problem management provides valuable insights into IT services' performance and effectiveness. These insights feed into the continual improvement practice, which uses data from problem management to identify, prioritise, and implement improvements across IT services.


Roles & Responsibilities in Problem Management


Effective problem management requires the involvement of various roles, each with distinct responsibilities that contribute to problem identification, analysis, resolution, and prevention.


Here's an overview of the critical roles within problem management:


Problem Manager

The Problem Manager oversees the entire problem management process. Responsibilities include:

  • Coordinating the identification and resolution of problems.

  • Managing the lifecycle of all problems.

  • Ensuring effective implementation of solutions.

  • Communicating progress and outcomes to stakeholders.

  • Maintaining the problem management system and ensuring it aligns with overall service management goals.

Problem Coordinator

Supporting the Problem Manager, the Problem Coordinator assists in:

  • Facilitating the day-to-day operations of problem management.

  • Tracking and documenting problems and their status.

  • Coordinating between teams to ensure effective resolution of problems.

  • Helping to prioritise problems based on their impact and urgency.


Technical Teams

Technical teams, including IT support and operations, play a crucial role in:

  • Identifying potential and actual problems.

  • Assisting in the analysis and diagnosis of the root causes.

  • Implementing fixes and changes to resolve problems.


Configuration Manager

The Configuration Manager supports problem management by:

  • Providing accurate configuration data that helps identify and analyse problems.

  • Ensuring that any changes to configuration items are reflected in the configuration management database (CMDB).


Change Manager

The Change Manager interacts with problem management by:

  • Facilitating changes required to eliminate known errors.

  • Ensuring that all changes are assessed, approved, implemented, and reviewed in a controlled manner.


Knowledge Manager

The Knowledge Manager contributes by:

  • Maintaining a knowledge base of known errors, solutions, and workarounds.

  • Ensuring that valuable information from resolved problems is accessible to all relevant stakeholders.


Implementation Advice


Effective problem management requires a strategic approach supported by measurable metrics and awareness of common pitfalls.


Here's some guidance on how to approach implementation:


Key Metrics

To measure the effectiveness of problem management, consider tracking the following key metrics:

  • Number of Repeated Incidents: Tracks incidents caused by unresolved problems to evaluate the effectiveness of problem resolution strategies.

  • Mean Time to Resolve Problems: Measures the average time taken to resolve problems, indicating the efficiency of the problem management process.

  • Number of Problems Resolved Within SLA: Assesses how many problems are resolved within the agreed service level agreements, reflecting the process's alignment with business expectations.

  • Percentage of Problems Causing Major Incidents: This statistic identifies the proportion of problems that result in major incidents, highlighting areas that need more robust problem management efforts.

Things to Avoid

Effective problem management also requires being aware of common pitfalls:

  • Siloed Functions: Avoid operating in silos where communication between incident management, problem management, and change management is restricted. Integrated operations enhance problem resolution and prevent recurrence.

  • Poorly Defined Processes: Ensure all problem management processes are clearly defined, documented, and understood by all involved parties. Lack of clarity can lead to inefficiencies and errors.

  • Inadequate Tools and Resources: Ensure that the tools and resources available are adequate to manage and resolve problems effectively. Insufficient resources can lead to delays and unresolved problems.

  • Neglecting Proactive Problem Management: Do not focus solely on reactive measures. Proactively identifying and resolving potential problems can significantly reduce incidents and improve service stability.


Frequently Asked Questions about Problem Management


What is the difference between an incident and a problem?

  • Incident: An unplanned interruption to an IT service or reduction in the quality of an IT service.

  • Problem: The underlying cause of one or more incidents.


Why is proactive problem management important?

Proactive problem management helps to identify and solve problems before incidents occur, thus preventing disruptions to business operations and enhancing service reliability.


How does problem management contribute to IT service improvements?

Problem management provides insights into the root causes of incidents, which helps make informed decisions about necessary changes and improvements in IT services and infrastructure.


Can problem management exist without a dedicated problem manager?

Yes, smaller organisations might integrate problem management responsibilities within other roles, such as service managers or technical leads. However, having a dedicated problem manager is beneficial in larger organisations where the volume and complexity of issues require specialised focus.


How does problem management interact with change management?

Problem management often identifies changes needed to resolve problems. Change management ensures that these changes are implemented effectively without introducing new issues, following a structured assessment, approval, and review process.


What tools support problem management?

Tools supporting problem management include ITSM software for tracking and managing problems, configuration management databases (CMDB) for understanding the affected components, and monitoring tools that help proactively identify problems.


What are the best practices for documenting problems?

Best practices include maintaining clear, concise, comprehensive records of problems, their analysis, actions taken, and outcomes. Documentation should include categorisation, prioritisation, and any related incidents or changes.

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About the author

Hi, I'm Alan, and have been working within the IT sector for over 30 years.

For the last 15 years, I've focused on IT Governance, Information Security, Projects and Service Management across various styles of organisations and markets.

I hold a degree in Information Systems, ITIL Expert certificate, PRINCE2 Practitioner and CISMP (Information Security Management).

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