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Major Incidents and the Human Factor

We all make mistakes, there’s no question about it. We cannot really avoid mistakes, but we can reduce the possibility of them happening. Furthermore, if they do happen, effective management can help minimise the impact. That’s where ITSM steps in.

By Dean Johnson, Support Analyst, Marval Software


“When you make a mistake, there are three things you should do about it: admit it, learn from it and don’t repeat it.” This quote by American coach Bear Bryant summarises three key steps we should take to manage an error, by: a) Being accountable, b) Amending our approach and c) Following the process.

Where people are involved, mistakes can happen. Some mistakes have minimum or no impact at all, while some others can evolve to major incidents with extensive and long-lasting consequences. When an incident happens, it’s crucial to manage it effectively and rapidly to minimise its impact. An insignificant incident can become a major one, if not dealt with promptly and efficiently.

We usually define major incidents as incidents that have high urgency, high priority and high impact, either to a large group of customers, or to the organisation, or both. In most cases, major incidents will interrupt business operations and bear some business and financial impact (big or small). That’s why organisations have detailed, recorded and pre-agreed processes in place for managing major incidents, where many different departments and stakeholders are involved and everyone has a specific role and pre-defined responsibilities.

Most Service Desk professionals should be able to recognise a major incident when it happens. There usually are some warning signs, like:

-          Disruptions of service, i.e. lack of access to systems, applications or the network

-          Customer communications that become more frequent, more demanding and impatient and, sometimes, aggressive

Sophisticated ITSM solutions, like Marval MSM, have rich features such as real-time reporting and can help 1st line staff to quickly recognise the warning signs of a major incident and escalate appropriately, accelerating the organisation’s reaction and reducing the overall impact of the event.

The human factor may be the cause of many major incidents, but it’s also the most critical asset an organisation can use to manage those incidents. An upset or even panicking customer requires special attention and personalised service. Ownership is important. When customers contact the organisation looking for answers, making up excuses won’t help. They need to know that the organisation recognises the impact the incident had to its customers and is ready to make amendments. They are looking for an apology and a promise, that the business will take the necessary steps to reduce the after-effect and eliminate the chance of it happening again. Having the customer’s history and any previous communications at hand on the ITSM solution helps understand the customer’s needs and the size and impact of the incident, as well as suggest potential ways-out that are realistic.

Communication is equally important. The customer who is stressed and upset about their problem would like to be kept up to date. Automated updates, sent by Marval MSM to both any affected customers and any stakeholders within the organisation, help keeping everyone on top of the situation and properly informed. Meanwhile, the organisation can focus on resolving the problem, using their best available resources and most skilled staff, who will be assisted by a comprehensive knowledge library.

The incident is resolved, everyone is properly informed, operations are back to normal; happy days! This is the point where the organisation has to locate the root cause of the incident, evaluate the situation and -if needed- make amendments. Using documented facts and reports extracted by the ITSM system will help support decision making and justify and accelerate the change process.

It’s not a panacea, but it’s very common: many major incidents are caused by human error. Mistakes usually happen either when there is no process in place, or when the process is not tested and proven, or when people ignore the process. A comprehensive ITSM solution will help establish and reinforce a solid process, while encouraging people to embrace the new. We all make mistakes and that’s fine, so long as we learn from them and use them as a vehicle for continual improvements.

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