IT Problem Management: Your Guide to Success

An image of a woman with her head in her hands, looking at a laptop screen in frustration.
Nobody likes to deal with IT errors! They make frustrating issues for everyone.
Source: Unsplash

IT incidents have an immediate cause and an underlying cause. For example, let’s say your application servers crash after a system upgrade. Your IT team finds an error in your configuration files and fixes it. But what caused the error in the first place? That’s where IT problem management comes in. 

A key part of managing IT incidents is figuring out what happened in the first place, and how to best solve it. Above all, making an effort to find out the root cause of these issues is exactly why problem management exists. Without a proper plan in place, your company will suffer from repeat problems that can cost you money or potential customers. 

In this article, I’ll explain the IT problem management process in detail. We’ll look at benefits, implementation methods, and ways to measure success. First, let’s start with the definition.

What Is IT Problem Management?

IT problem management is the systematic approach to identifying the cause of current or potential IT incidents. Altogether, the goal is to eliminate the root cause and prevent the problem from recurring. If it’s unavoidable, it aims to minimize impact. This process includes the entire problem life cycle from diagnosis to resolution. It involves the following steps:

  1. Detect, categorize, and focus on problems and risks
  2. Investigate and uncover underlying contributing causes
  3. Find the best remediation process
  4. Suggest a workaround and continue the investigation if there isn’t an option for remediation
  5. Fix the problem or risk, if a solution is available
  6. Document troubleshooting and fixing steps for knowledge management
An illustration of the problem management process.
Problem management is a series of repetitive steps from diagnosis to solution!
Source: Invgate

Benefits of Problem Management

The benefits of problem management include improved customer satisfaction and reduced IT costs. For example, problem management teams:

  • Resolve underlying problems, so incident frequency decreases
  • Spend more time delivering new features instead of fixing old issues
  • Save thousands of dollars in downtime losses
  • Increase customer trust by improving service availability and quality

Problem management is part of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL®) framework. In truth, it’s one of several best practices for high-quality IT service delivery. Let’s look at how problem management compares to other ITIL practices.

The Difference between IT Problem Management and Incident Management

An illustration depicting incident management and problem management. Problem management includes groups of incidents.
Incident vs problem management—is there any difference?
Source: Scnsoft

IT incidents are unplanned events that disrupt IT delivery. For example, slow-performing servers, application failures, and cyber attacks are all IT incidents. Conversely, problems are system or process failures that cause IT incidents. 

Incident Management

Incident management is the response to IT incidents to restore normal operations. Subsequently, incident managers follow a predetermined process to resolve incidents and minimize business impact. For example, in case of a malware attack, the team might:

  1. Disable the infected server
  2. Provision a backup server, so operations resume normally
  3. Analyze and identify the malware infection
  4. Remove infected files
  5. Restore the server to its original state

Incident Management vs Problem Management

Given these points, incident and problem management appear similar because they both focus on IT challenges. All in all, they want to ensure consistent IT service delivery. Yet, the two approaches are very different. Incident management focuses on an immediate fix, while problem management looks for a long-term solution. 

On the one hand, incident managers have to solve the problem quickly to restore IT operations. Conversely, problem managers will take longer to analyze the data. It might even take multiple incidents before they can fully identify the cause. In any event, problem managers don’t just fix the incident. Instead, they establish a process that prevents the incident from happening again.

Incident ManagementProblem Management
GoalSolve IT incidents to restore service delivery.Find the root cause of IT incidents to prevent re-occurrence
FocusShort-term focus—Resolving the immediate IT incident Long-term focus—Study data and fix the underlying cause of the incident
ExampleServer crashes—Fix the configuration error and restore serverServer crashes—Fix system or process failures that caused the configuration error
Repeat incidentsFollow standard setup of steps to respond to repeat incidents consistentlyAnalyze trends and patterns in repeat incidents to stop them from reoccurring
Incident vs Problem Management: One focuses on the root issue, while the other fixes the immediate problem at hand.

The biggest difference between these two types is the length of time to resolve the issue. Incident Management tries to solve the problem and move to the next, while problem management tries to fix what caused it. At the same time, organizations must implement both processes to ensure customer service and operational efficiency. With this in mind, let’s explore the details behind implementing this process!

How Can You Implement IT Problem Management?

An infographic of problem management in action.
Problem management reduces all types of IT incidents!
Source: Infotech

Problem management has two implementation methods. While one approach is reactive, the other is proactive. Given that, let’s look at both solutions.

1. Reactive Problem Management 

In a similar fashion, reactive problem management is a coordinated response to existing IT incidents. It’s a great place to start if you already follow incident management best practices. One major incident or incident group starts the problem management process. 

Standard techniques used in reactive problem management include:

Swarming Technique

Different teams like operations, development, and security meet after the incident. These teams will study all aspects of the incident at length to grasp the situation at hand. 

Chronological Analysis

The problem management team investigates logs, configuration files, and other relevant data. They identify a time-ordered series of events before the incident. Thus, they go back in time to uncover the root cause.

Five Whys Analysis

The problem management team studies the incident and identifies the first why question. When the team finds an answer to the question, they reframe it as another why. In the meantime, the team will repeat this until they find out the cause. Take a look at this example of the five whys in action:

An image of a flow chart that shows a simple 5 whys analysis for workplace injury scenario.
5 whys analysis in action!
Source: Lothian Quality

2. Proactive Problem Management

Proactive problem management is an ongoing process of continuous improvement. Teams identify potential risks to service to limit future incidents. They analyze warnings, vulnerabilities, and competitors’ incidents to prevent future problems. 

Proactive problem management techniques include:

Risk Assessment 

Risk assessment is a systematic process of evaluating potential risks. First, teams identify threats and track them in a risk database. They also estimate the likelihood of the risk occurring and its potential impact. Next, they categorize risks into low, medium, and high categories. Finally, they take proactive steps to prevent high-risk incidents. 

Affinity Mapping

Affinity mapping is a brainstorming technique for proactive problem management. All members from diverse teams like IT, DevOps, and security come together. They share ideas and thoughts about potential risks. With this in mind, the manager groups together common statements to find a significant risk area. Then, all teams coordinate tasks to limit the risks.

An illustration of sticky notes grouped together under various categories including timing, focus, and attendees.
Affinity mapping in action.
Source: Miro

Trend Analysis

Trend analysis looks at past incidents to identify future problems. For example, the IT team observes that the application crashes every December. So they take proactive steps from July onwards to prevent the crash next December. 

Reactive vs Proactive Problem Management

The reactive approach waits for a problem and then fixes it. You can compare it to installing a burglar alarm after someone robs your house. In contrast, proactive problem management identifies strategies to prevent problems from occurring. It’s like installing smart home security before the robbery occurs. 

Having said this, I would like to note that no approach is perfect. So, organizations must put in place both strategies for comprehensive problem management. Here’s a great summary of the differences:

Reactive ManagementProactive Management
ApproachSolve the problems causing existing incidentsTake steps to preventfuture problems
GoalReduce incident frequency and repetitionEnsure continuous improvement of the whole system
TriggerExisting incidentsPotential risks
ImplementationAnalyze the root cause behind an incident, then fix itAnalyze future risks and make changes proactively
Now or later? The difference between being proactive and reactive!

Once your organization implements problem management, the next step is to measure its success. To illustrate, let’s look at some metrics you can track!

How Can You Measure the Success of Your IT Problem Management Process?

Key performance indicators (KPIs) help you measure the effectiveness of problem management. KPIs are unique to every organization, and your team members can choose the ones that bring them the most value. Check out the table below for some common examples:

KPIDescriptionIndicator
Average time to startThe average time it takesto start the problem-solving processLower values show team commitment to problem management
Number of incomplete  problemsThe total number ofproblems the team identifies but has not attempted to solveLarge values show poorsystem health, high team workload, and low commitment to problem management
Average problem resolution  timeThe average time it takesfrom problem identification to final solutionHigh values mean higher problem complexity and lower team productivity
Incidents/problemTotal number of incidentsassociated with one problemHigh values indicategreater problem priority and complexity
Percentage of solved  problems(Solved problems/total problems)*100 High values indicateimproved team efficiency, commitment, and system health
KPIs are a great way to keep track of your metrics and watch your team improve.

If your organization is just starting, I recommend setting up a process to log problems and start with root cause analysis. Lowering your average time to start and incomplete problems is the first step. Then, as your problem management process matures, other metrics will improve.

With this in mind, let’s summarize.

Final Words

Repeat IT issues can cause a huge strain on your company and your team. Using IT problem management gives you a structured approach to reduce those issues. If you put reactive and proactive approaches into place, you’ll be one step ahead of bugs at all times. Without it, you’ll be playing catch up with IT incidents until the end of time.

I hope this article helps you with effective problem management. Do you have more questions? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections for more information!

FAQ

Who is a problem manager?

Problem management requires several teams to collaborate on tasks. These can be analysis, communication, documentation, or more. Organizations appoint problem managers for task coordination. Specifically, they create, update, prioritize and assign tasks to different teams. In the meantime, the problem manager oversees all aspects of the problem lifecycle.

What is the problem lifecycle?

In problem management, you repeat a set of steps for every problem. You identify the problem, analyze it, suggest workarounds, or solve it. Then, the problem management process repeats until you reduce critical incidents. With this lifecycle, service delivery and system efficiency improve over time.

What are the three phases of problem management?

The ITIL framework describes three phases—problem identification, problem control, and error control. First, you identify the problem and record it. Second, you analyze different approaches to solving the problem. Finally, you make system changes to solve the problem. But, you make sure to minimize and manage known errors while making changes.

What is a known error?

In problem management, the term “known error” indicates a problem with no solution. The team knows the problem exists but can’t fix it permanently. So instead, they find a workaround to manage the problem until they find a long-term fix.
Eventually, organizations record known errors in a known error database.

What is a Why-Why Diagram?

A Why-Why Diagram is a visual representation of the problem analysis process. It shows a map or flow chart that links a why question to all possible answers. You treat every answer as another why question and link it to further answers. The Why-Why Diagram typically has three or more levels. For example, “server crashes→ config file error →manual update.”

Resources

TechGenix: Newsletters

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TechGenix: Guide on Incident Management

Discover how incident management works and the best software to implement it.

TechGenix: Article on Knowledge Management

Explore knowledge management with knowledge-centered services.

TechGenix: Guide on Cloud Data Management 

Learn more about cloud data management and the benefits it brings.

TechGenix: Article on IT Metrics to Maximize Performance 

Read more about top IT metrics to maximize business performance.

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