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Getting drunk on ITSM processes

Are the ITSM processes in your business making people tipsy, making them wander aimlessly through activities but not really aware of where they are going or what they are trying to do? Or perhaps giving people the feeling they are experiencing a particularly bad hangover? You may even find that some of your processes are making people surly and downright mean. If you notice these symptoms in your organization, it is likely past time to stand up and say (for example) “My name is IT, and I am a process-oholic.”
On their website*, the staff at the Mayo Clinic in part describe the negative side of alcohol consumption as “Alcohol use disorder (which includes a level that’s sometimes called alcoholism) is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.”

Businesses can succumb to issues very much like these when designing, creating, enforcing, using or adopting processes, and the negative effects of this “process use disorder” can be as harmful as those suffered by someone (and those around them) struggling with a personal situation. Most often, the negative effects build over time, playing off each other, perpetuating a cycle that may give an illusion of control while in fact representing a path that is anything from a car on a rocky road to a full speed express train approaching a canyon over which the bridge has been blown up.

To illustrate my analogy, I will paraphrase the description above to substitute processes and process use. Let’s see if you recognize anything.

A pattern of process use that involves problems of control

When discussing processes, the concept of “control” can take on multiple meanings. Compliance with requirements, hitting those CSFs and KPIs, regulatory laws, control limits, change control; with so many types of controls to worry about, it is quite easy to have challenges. One overarching goal you should have is to ensure you have the right measurements tracking the right things. That sounds obvious, but all too many organizations actually have much less control of their processes than they think because they are aligning to metrics that are based on the wrong parameters. Regular review of your metrics to ensure they are telling you the truth will help you stay in control.

Being preoccupied with processes

If one process is good, two must be better; and so six, fifteen, etc. You can never have too many processes, right? Well, of course you can. If your organization focuses more on creating processes than it does on those that are supposed to benefit from them, you have likely lost sight of the reason for having processes in the first place. Processes exist to promote a consistent outcome that the business requires and the customer desires. Creating a process when it is not needed, or to do things that are not needed or desired, is creating waste, something no business can afford to produce extra of since there is already some inherent in most every endeavor.

Take note however: this symptom can also apply when there is an unhealthy obsession with even a single process. It only takes one overly bureaucratic or restrictive process to drive your people to poor a tall glass of non-conformance or brew a batch of shadow processes. Instead of being preoccupied with your processes, concentrate on ensuring you have the right processes in place – and no more than you need.

Continuing to use a process even when it causes problems

We come now to the land of “This is the way we have always done it!” – which is great when you are talking about the taste of Coke®, but not so much when there is clear evidence that a current process is not producing the benefits expected (or worse, actually producing negative impacts on the business/customers). Yet there are many examples of businesses that continued using processes that were in fact hurting them and their customers. A fair percentage of these businesses followed those practices into bankruptcy or worse, despite there being signs of danger. Admitting there is a problem is the only way to begin addressing it. The bottom line is, sometimes processes need to change; ignoring this truth never makes it any less true. Ignorance is not bliss – in business, it is often quite the opposite.

Having to add more processes or requirements to get the same effect

After months of stability, you notice a slight upward trend of ‘failed’ changes, and decide to be proactive by increasing lead time for changes from 3 days to 5. The next measurement is better, so you feel better. But the next report shows a percent increase in incidents attributed to change, so you add requirements for increased testing and peer review. But this time the next report shows ‘failed’ change numbers up again, and, frustrated, you push lead time to 7 days and discontinue all ‘standard’ changes, pushing them all through a formal CAB. Your people are upset because of the increased workload, and customers are upset because requests that used to take a few days are now taking weeks to be implemented…

This treacherous spiral tends to occur when we attempt to treat perceived symptoms without knowing what is causing them. Adding processes or requirements that just address symptoms only serves to further mask the real problems that are actually causing the issues. This is a bit like repeatedly painting that stubborn brown stain on the ceiling, but never going up to find out where the water is coming from.

Don’t be seduced into this path; take the time to find out the cause of your issues to ensure any actions you take will eliminate the symptoms, not cover them up.

Having withdrawal symptoms

In service management, we can often trace some incidents back to some type of ‘process avoidance’. These ‘withdrawal symptoms’ can arise when what I call shadow processes – the activities people perform instead of an actual process that is (at least perceived to be) too cumbersome, restrictive or bureaucratic – quietly take the place of your approved processes. This is the same type of behavior as is found in the practice of shadow IT. These activities can be especially insidious, gradually taking hold at a cultural level over a period of months or even years, and typically only discovered when repeated incidents (or one of sufficient impact) occur.

Shadow processes normally arise when those expected to perform an approved process do not feel they have a voice to promote change in the current processes, and tend to persist in an environment in which process control focuses only on numbers, without checks in place to ensure approved processes are actually being followed.

As with many problems, prevention is best; ensuring you have an open and effective continual improvement practice for your processes can encourage people to suggest improvements rather than believing they have to invent ways to bypass perceived (or real) roadblocks. Always be aware though that there will always be those that will decide they should be able to bypass even the most sensible process requirements; this is simply the nature of humanity, so compliance controls should always be included in your process measurements.

Sobering Thoughts

Getting drunk on processes is all too easy, as there are many ways ‘overindulge’, and such opportunities typically increase along with the complexity of your business needs and customer requirements. There is a quote oft attributed to Albert Einstein: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Processes and their use are a perfect example of that. In moderation, processes provide stability and benefit; using them in excess can result in your organization one day waking up bleary and confused, wondering just how you ended up in a back alley while your competition drives by in a limo.

I have offered these ‘sobering thoughts’ in hopes of assisting you in identifying and mitigating any instance of “process use disorder” that may be affecting your organization/customers, but in this ‘sponsor’ role I can only point the way. Now it’s up to you.


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