Definition: What is Problem Management?
Problem management is an important area of IT service management (ITSM). It is used as an ITIL® (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) practice as well as for business processes in general. In such a process, the aim is to identify and analyze problem sources (causes). The next step is to develop solutions and preventive measures before moving on to implementation and continuous improvement.
The overarching objective of a problem management process is to permanently resolve and prevent recurring disruptions (incidents). This works by having IT teams apply standardized procedures (ITIL processes) to identify root causes.
Here is an overview of some exemplary goals:
– Ensure compliance with the agreed service level agreement (SLA)
– Prevent major incidents (serious interruptions)
– Reduce susceptibility to disruptions
– Identify potential problems before they become acute
– Provide better customer service
To achieve this, it is important to show incidents in relation to each other: There may be common causes.
Proactive and reactive problem management
There are two approaches to solving problems in IT. In most cases, the problem management process takes place as a result of an incident, i.e. reactively: IT teams analyze the cause of an incident and develop solutions to prevent further incidents. As a rule, IT teams often work reactively.
In proactive problem management, on the other hand, IT teams take a preventative approach to avoid incidents from the outset. Sometimes their efforts may also be about minimizing the negative consequences of potential disruptions. The respective team proactively checks IT services for weaknesses and determines how their causes can be eliminated.
Proactive and reactive problem management go hand in hand. For example, once the IT team has solved a problem reactively, it can use it as a basis for preventatively checking whether similar or adjacent processes, because IT services may have further or similar problems.
Important steps in problem management
The ITIL framework offers best practices for ITSM practices, such as problem management. The following points are important in ITIL problem management:
- Identification: the first step is to identify the root causes of an incident. What exactly is affecting the IT service in question? To find out, business systems are monitored, user reports studied, errors analyzed and audits performed.
- Analysis: This is followed by a thorough analysis to understand causes as well as effects. To do this, problem managers collect data, run tests and compile information.
- Remediation: In this step, IT teams can apply patches, change configurations and update software or hardware. It’s also often useful to train employees accordingly.
- Prevention: Problem management is all about preventing future issues and business disruption. To do this, IT teams must work with other departments to improve processes and implement best practices across the enterprise. They should also monitor systems to identify potential problems early.
- Documentation / reports: In order to be able to solve similar problems quickly and in a targeted manner in the future, sufficient documentation is necessary. This involves the nature of the problems identified, their causes and the solutions applied. This is how a team can learn and IT services can be improved in the long term. If the respective problem manager also prepares reports, everyone involved and affected is informed.
- Continuous improvement: Problem management is never finished. The IT team should continuously learn by analyzing trends, identifying patterns and adjusting processes accordingly. This reduces the risk of problems occurring again.
Comprehensive problem management ensures that IT services are always available (no downtime), reliable, and continuously efficient. This reduces costs and increases business productivity.
Every problem I solved became a rule that later served to solve other problems.René Descartes
Fittingly, IT teams can use problem management to continually evolve IT services. Ideally, solving one problem will lead to identifying and fixing the underlying causes of other incidents.
The advantages of proper problem management
It is obvious that adequate problem management is associated with numerous advantages. The first is pragmatic: Once a problem is solved, it no longer causes harm. A problem should be eliminated and thwarted so that it does not further jeopardize workflows and processes.
Structured and standardized problem management according to ITIL in ITSM results in real business gains. In addition to reduced downtime, for example, higher efficiency, lower costs, better service and more satisfied customers come to the forefront.
Below are the key benefits:
When underlying causes are identified and eliminated, faults and failures occur much less frequently. Thus, it helps enormously, especially in the long term, to have consistent problem management. The more times a problem is solved, the more reliably IT services perform.
Outages and disruptions mean direct costs in the form of remediation and changeovers – companies sometimes pay a lot of money for short-term incident management. Indirect business costs also arise, as working hours cannot be used operationally. At the same time, lower service quality means real losses. With good problem management, on the other hand, financial resources can be kept much more under control.
An incident clearly stands in the way of efficient work. This is especially true for IT teams, which have to spend a lot of time and energy resolving it. But other employees are also unable to use their time efficiently when disruptions occur. The only way to prevent this is through adequate problem management.
If problems are resolved, they cannot lead to recurring incidents. This in turn benefits the customer experience. Likewise, providers can actively work more on service quality if they do not have to deal with repeated incidents. As a result, the overall level of service increases.
Higher customer satisfaction
Of course, customers may not be able to work as usual in the event of difficulties such as server interruptions. However, what matters most to customer satisfaction is that no problems occur. Other factors are usually secondary to this. Problem management is therefore a key factor for happy customers.
More security and better compliance
Problems lead to vulnerabilities, which in turn jeopardizes security. In addition, regulations – such as data protection – can often no longer be complied with, especially due to critical vulnerabilities. When a problem is solved, products and services offer greater security and compliance can be better ensured.
The benefits of successful problem management cannot be limited to individual factors. It works as a whole. For example, it can help companies provide proactive support, better plan budgets, and enrich knowledge through learning. Problem management can also promote internal collaboration, since successful problem analysis and resolution usually requires various teams and departments to cooperate with each other.
Tips for functional problem management
Here are some tips and advice for dealing effectively with this IT process:
- Be proactive: If problem management processes predominantly only come into effect after incidents have already occurred, a preventive approach makes more sense in the long term. The IT team should actively search for possible causes for any incidents that occur. In this way, incidents can be prevented from the outset.
- Close exchange between problem and incident management: When incidents occur, there is always a specific cause. Determining this cause is the task of problem management. Conversely, it is also possible to draw conclusions about possible incidents from an identified problem. Therefore, a close exchange between both areas is recommended.
- Prioritize in a standardized manner: When workloads are generally high, IT teams often have to set hard priorities when it comes to problem management. This works best if they define a clear process and set adequate criteria. The goal should be to avoid as many incidents as possible.
- Document consistently: Documentation is an important area of problem management. If this step is carried out consistently and clearly, it can be used to thwart future problems and incidents much more effectively.
- Adapt solutions: Once a suitable solution has been found for a problem, it can be adapted for similar cases. In terms of continuous improvement, it is important to use newly gained knowledge wisely.
Background and relationships
At this point, we go into the background of Problem Management and explain how it relates to other ITIL areas.
The following important relationships are covered:
- problems and incidents
- problem management and incident management
- problem management and change management
The differences between a problem and an incident
The terms problem and incident are often used interchangeably. In fact, however, they are different concepts in ITSM. The differences are defined in the ITIL best practice guide, the de facto standard for ITSM.
Here are the main differences between problems and incidents:
What is an Incident according to ITIL?
An incident is a disturbance (unexpected event). It affects the functionality of IT services and requires immediate attention to restore normal operations. Examples of incidents include server failures, network problems, crashes, logon problems, or hardware failures.
What is a problem according to ITIL?
A problem is the underlying cause of a failure or multiple incidents. Problems are long-term in nature and require a thorough analysis so that they can be resolved. Examples are recurring incidents caused by a faulty configuration, a software bug or a bottleneck in the infrastructure.
The connection between problem and incident management
At this point, a comparison helps. If medicine can eliminate the cause of a disease (problem management), the patient – with appropriate measures – is permanently cured. With pure incident management (without knowing the cause), one would only have combated symptoms that could have recurred as a result. The disease would continue to exist.
Problem management solves problems, while incident management fixes bugs.
The cause-effect relationship
Accordingly, the following principle can be defined for ITSM:
Cause (problem) + effect (incident; malfunction) = vulnerability.
Users usually report when something is not working. Consequently, we are dealing with effects.
Now there are two possibilities:
- the cause (problem) is known.
- the cause is not (yet) known.
Problem management tackles root causes
Initially, the disruption can be resolved quickly (without root cause research): This is incident management comes into play. However, when the incident is more complex, problem management is needed. The task now is to find the root cause through a structured approach.
As soon as the root cause is identified, a “Request for Change” (RfC) can take place to permanently solve the known problem. In the meantime, a workaround is used as an auxiliary procedure. This does not solve the underlying problem, but bypasses the bug.
What are the differences between problem and change management?
IT service management is often about initiating and supporting change. The change management process differs from problem management in the sense that it is not necessarily based on an incident. The process is initiated independently of incidents and aims to implement improvements or adjustments.
Where problem managers conduct root cause research and develop solutions to problems, change managers aim to drive change.
Correlations between problem and change management
In contrast, parallels arise when a change is the cause of a disruption (incident). In change management, for example, it is often the case that existing processes are disrupted as a result of an innovation. This is precisely the context in which problem management is often used.
Likewise, change management processes come into effect to initiate changes whose necessity has been identified by problem managers. For example, if device drivers are the underlying cause of incidents, new ones may have to be installed. A corresponding change process is necessary.
Adequate problem management has many advantages for companies and the IT team in general. It has a high significance for identifying the causes of disruptions and eliminating them, thus becoming more efficient as an organization, keeping costs low and customers happy.
Consequently, it is important to practice problem management in a targeted – and in the best case proactive – manner. ITIL provides the appropriate best practices as a guideline for this. This is how IT services can be continuously improved. The goal should be to establish permanent solutions to prevent incidents.