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Incident vs. Problem Management: Why Modern IT Teams need both

How is problem management different from incident management. And, do you need both these ITIL processes? Find out.

Two-thirds of data center outage incidents cost $100,000+ for businesses as per Uptime Institute’s Annual Outage Analysis 2023. That’s why it’a a critical priority for enterprises to reduce the frequency of IT and data service outages.

While robust incident management processes maybe in place to resolve and minimize service downtime, having rigorous problem management practices will help modern enterprises to reduce the occurrence of such incidents in the first place.

TL; DR - Incident management swiftly resolves disruptions, ensuring smooth IT operations. On the other hand, problem management focuses on preventing recurring issues, improving system performance and reliability.

To break this down, we’ve explored the why behind each of these ITIL concepts with examples and how they’re intricately also related.

Before we dive in, let’s first understand how an incident differs from a problem.

Incident vs. problem vs. change: Explained with an example

As per ITIL, an incident is an unplanned disruption to service or the failure of a service component. A problem is the is the underlying cause or root of one or more incidents. Finally, a change is anything that is added, removed, and modified in a service that has a service impact.

Let’s take an example of a recurring printer issue.

Imagine your IT support team starts getting a couple of incidents from their HR team that the printer isn’t working properly. Your IT technician begins resolving each of these incidents separately.

The following week, few other HR team members report incidents with the same printer. The technician now notices that it’s a recurring issue and reports it to his manager. The manager and team review the incident history and confirm the pattern of frequently jamming printers in the HR department.

They open a problem ticket to identify the root cause and ask the support technician to inspect the printer and pull up maintenance records. On further troubleshooting, they determine that the printer is reaching the end of its lifespan and has to be replaced.

The manager creates a plan to procure a new printer, migrate users, and update the knowledge base to prevent future incidents.

Incident vs. Problem vs. Change

By addressing the underlying problem, the IT team is able to provide a more reliable printing solution and avoid repeated service disruptions.

Think of it this way: Problems usually stem from incidents and can result in a change.

So should you add Problems to your IT team?

As ironic as it sounds, yes. In fact, as seen from the above example, analyzing and tracking repetitive incidents as a ‘problem’ sets up your IT team for minimal disruptions in the future.

Aparna, our head of product, explains it this way: 'In today's fast-paced IT environments, every issue - no matter where it starts - ends in the IT team’s queue. IT teams are swamped with these recurring incidents, and focus on quick resolutions when disruptions occur, ensuring minimal impact on users. It’s easy to lose sight of the underlying issue as teams work on unblocking users or restoring services.'

IT should go beyond just incident resolution and proactively manage 'problems' to identify and resolve the root causes of these incidents.

Let’s take a look at the individual processes to decode this further.

Incident management: Definition and process

Incident management deals with unplanned interruptions or quality reductions in services. It involves addressing issues promptly to ensure that all the IT service operations run smoothly. Service providers, with their knowledge and authority, tackle incidents like network outages promptly using their incident management teams.

Incident management involves several steps to ensure smooth IT operations, including:

  • Logging incidents: This involves capturing essential details about the issue, including the time of occurrence, affected systems, and initial observations—providing a clear trail for analysis and future reference.
  • Categorizing by urgency: Once logged, incidents are categorized based on their urgency and impact on the business to identify which issues need immediate attention and which can be addressed later.
  • Swiftly resolving issues within SLAs: Service Level Agreements (SLAs) set the expected timeframes for resolving incidents. Swift resolution involves troubleshooting, applying fixes, and verifying that the issue is resolved.
  • Escalating when necessary: Some incidents may require expertise beyond the initial response team's capabilities. In such cases, escalation protocols are followed to bring in higher-level support or specialized teams.
  • Ensuring closure with detailed documentation: This includes detailing the incident’s resolution, steps taken, lessons learned, and any follow-up actions required.

Speed and clear communication are the secret ingredients in incident management.

Problem Management: Definition and process

Problem management involves addressing root causes of one or more solutions and implementing proactive solutions. It's about diving deep, analyzing patterns, and getting to the root of the issue to prevent future disruptions.

The goal of problem management is to help optimize IT infrastructure for long-term stability and efficiency.

Problem management experts use various techniques to uncover the root causes of incidents. Whether it's conducting thorough investigations, analyzing data trends, or using advanced diagnostic tools, these techniques help pinpoint underlying issues accurately.

Elevating the visibility and value of problem management is key in problem management. This involves promoting awareness within the organization, showcasing the impact of effective problem management on reducing incidents and improving overall IT performance.

Key differences in incident and problem management approaches

1. Swift response vs. root cause analysis

Incident management swiftly restores services, addressing immediate disruptions. In contrast, problem management, with its analytical prowess, delves deep into root cause analysis. It takes a proactive stance to avoid future incidents and minimizes potential disruptions.

2. Short-term vs. long-term impact

Incident management aims for quick resolutions to restore services promptly, whereas problem management focuses on systemic improvements to prevent future incidents and enhance overall system reliability. This futuristic perspective ensures sustained operational excellence and reduced downtime.

3. Incident vs. problem management KPIs:

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) play a crucial role in measuring the effectiveness of incident and problem management processes.

IT incident response teams focus on restoring services to normal as quickly as possible which translates their KPIs being more SLA-centric. This could include:

  • Incident response time: The time taken to acknowledge and respond to an IT incident
  • Mean Time to Resolution (MTTR): The time taken from incident acknowledgement to final closure
  • First-contact resolution rate: Incidents that are resolved in the first contact with the IT team
  • Incident backlog: Number of unresolved incidents due to an unexpected surge in incident volume or a lack of resources

Conversely, the goals of the problem management team are aligned more with process improvements or service delivery efficiency. So their KPIs could include,

  • Mean time to complete root cause analysis: This is the time taken from start to close of a problem’s root cause analysis.
  • Number of incidents linked to the problem: This measures the decrease or increase of incidents during or after the problem is scrutinized.
  • Preventive action implementation rate: The percentage of identified problems for which preventive actions or measures have been implemented.

Solve problems, minimize incidents

Understanding the cause-and-effect dynamics between incidents and problems is important. Incidents provide valuable insights into potential underlying issues, highlighting the need for proactive problem resolution and strengthening the IT ecosystem with expert guidance.

As Aparna puts it, ‘Having a proactive approach prevents incident recurrence, reduces downtime, and creates a more resilient IT infrastructure for the enterprise. By leveraging modern, AI-first ITSM solutions, we can enhance both processes, providing faster incident resolution and deeper insights for proactive Problem management.'

If you’re looking for a modern IT service management solution that helps you implement solid incident and program management systems, try Atomicwork!

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