Is there a problem?

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A few months ago, we opened our company bank account with one of the leading Indian banks. Till recently, I was not getting any email correspondence from them. On checking, I found that there was a small spelling error (one letter ‘s’ was dropped) in the email id registered with the bank. The forms had been filled up but the person who entered the mail id in the system lacked the discipline required to ensure it is error free. A whole bunch of documentation with multiple signatures were once again required to change the mail id in the system! Finally, I went to the branch and spoke to the manager. He apologised and told me that the issue would be resolved end of the day.

Another week went before I realised that the email was still not updated! I went back to the branch manager. He figured out from the look on my face that I was really unhappy and started to explain why this further delay. It seems that the new request went in but was rejected since the person did not notice any difference between the mail id in the system and what I had requested. Being a single letter omission, he/she missed it again and promptly closed the ‘incident’ without any feedback going back to the customer. What is going on here?

To explain that better, allow me to borrow an analogy from the IT industry. The ITIL framework categorises the different tasks which are typically carried out – categories such as  Service Strategy, Service Operations etc. Operations primarily has incident management and problem management. Let’s say there is a report that is published every Monday which is used by multiple stakeholders in the company. One of the users come back and report that there is an error in the report pertaining to her department. A ‘ticket’ is raised in a tool which is an incident category. The support team works on the incident and resolves it after which the ticket is closed. All is fine till another similar incident crops up two weeks later. Another ticket is raised and resolved. This continues for a while till someone questions or starts looking into the real reason why this is happening again and again. It is found that the business logic in the report had an error. This is fixed and the problem goes away altogether.

What we just witnessed is a case of resolving the problem and not just the incident. The ‘problem’ was deeper rooted than what was a manifestation on the surface or ‘incident’. It is important to appreciate the difference between the two so that we really start understanding problems and ways to resolve them. Coming back to my bank manager, his focus was to solve the incident (irate customer) while I was trying to get him to address the problem (rigour in data entry). I would have been happier if some concrete steps were taken to avoid such recurrences of my issue instead of him apologising for something that was not his fault.

Once you keep this distinction in mind, you will see all around you the incident management mind-set. In India, cars often do not stop at a red light unless there is a traffic cop around. A cop being present is like an incident but the root problem remains unresolved. What if the incident and problem are in conflict that is they require different solution approaches– let’s say one car is going in the opposite direction and causes a jam? The cop can stop the car and pull up the driver and/or give a challan but that could cause more delay to other cars. Instead, he chooses to work on somehow getting the erring car cleared so that the ‘incident’ is resolved. The wrong behaviour is reinforced among other drivers.

Ok, we get the difference and its more semantics, right? No, it requires us to fundamentally alter the way we think and address issues and hence is much tougher than expected. So the next time, you encounter a problem, ask yourself if it is an incident. Solve the incident but figure out if there is a problem linked to it. And If so, address that problem. It’s not difficult but requires critical thinking and problem solving skills. These life skills are critical for the growth of any person or organization.