Fix The Problem - Don't Fix Blame

Written by Beyond20 Staff

In “Out of the Crisis,” W. Edwards Deming wrote:

I should estimate that in my experience most troubles and most possibilities for improvement add up to the proportions something like this:

94% belongs to the system (responsibility of management)
6% special*

What does this mean in the context of Problem Management? Think of the last time your organization suffered a widespread service outage. Was there a flurry of strongly worded emails from business heads to the CIO? Did IT management react by ’rounding up the usual suspects’ as a first step in finding out who was to blame? If you’ve seen that happen, can you identify the number of times that reaction made things better? Or as Dr. Phil asks, ‘how’s that working out for you?’ More often that not, this type of management behavior does not result in improvements, but this behavior imbues in the organization a culture characterized by fear, manifested in behaviors of defensiveness and finger pointing.

In Deming’s work in manufacturing environments, he identified the caustic effect of fear in an organization. In ‘Out of the Crisis’ Deming provided specific guidance to management concerning the importance of eliminating fear in the organization so that all members can work more effectively. Mature IT organizations take this advice to heart, and recognize that a culture of ‘fixing blame’ is counter productive.

What’s a better approach? A culture where the focus is on identifying causes and finding solutions, following the oft quoted Japanese proverb ‘Fix the problem. Don’t fix blame’. The ITIL framework provides us Problem Management, a tried and true way to promote a focus on identifying the underlying cause, or root cause, of service issues. An effective Problem Management process can lead to fewer high impact, all hands on deck incidents, as well as elimination of those chronic recurring lower impact incidents that can sap productivity. Problem Management can thus provide direct benefit to the business in the form of higher levels of service for customer facing services and higher staff productivity.

Problem Management, with its focus on finding and fixing underlying causes, can provide indirect benefit to the business by shaping culture within IT. When staff sees management commitment to the process and when they see problem investigations that are objective and that focus on evidence, data, and implementing solutions, over time the staff can become less fearful and defensive. This reduction in fear contributes to a virtuous cycle — as fear becomes less of a factor, staff become more open to the process, the process becomes more effective, leading to further reductions in the level of fear. And as the Problem Management process becomes more effective, benefits to the business increase, and there is more support and enthusiasm for making further improvements, and so on, and so on, and so on…

*In Deming’s quote, “special” refers to defects in raw material, those items outside of control boundaries, etc.

Looking for lasting improvement (aren’t we all)?
The answer is Continual Service Improvement – and it is very much doable.


Originally published February 02 2016, updated January 01 2019