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Beware of The Checklist Illusion

Beware of The Checklist Illusion April 28, 2021
Checklist Illusion

by Greg Smith

I am often asked to provide service management maturity assessments for our clients. As this is typically our first engagement, it serves as an introduction to the client’s culture, their knowledge of ITSM, their history with ITIL best practices, and how they operate. To assess the current state of ITSM within the IT Organization, I begin by conducting a series of interviews with IT Leads, Process Managers / Owners, process “users”, etc.  I often find that there is a disconnect between the Process Managers / Owners and the users of the process when it comes to the existence, usage of, and maturity of the ITSM processes.  This disconnect is often due to “The Checklist Illusion” where it’s believed that because something exists (e.g. “Problem Management? We’ve got a process document for that. Check it off the list.”) it’s effectively and efficiently utilized.

Below are some common responses to the question “Do you have X Process (e.g. Problem Management) defined and embedded?” that might be a clue ITSM in your IT Organization is experiencing The Checklist Illusion:

“We have a document for that.”

If the Process Owner / Manager provides this response, it usually means “Yes, we do have this Process and it’s embedded.” If a Lead or practitioner says this, it usually means “We have a document on this, and I might even know where that is, but no one references it or reviews it since it was originally created and passed around.”

It’s important that Process and Procedure documents are “kept alive” by:

  • Reviewing them on a regular basis
    • Referencing them when appropriate (e.g. during a Root Cause Analysis meeting)
    • Reminding IT Staff the purpose and benefits of the process and procedures
    • Walking new IT staff through the process and use of the documents (it is not sufficient to give a new team member a link to the documents and check “trained on process” off the list!)

“Our ITSM Platform has that capability.”

ITSM Platforms today are very robust and often have modules to create records for many ITIL processes. However, existence of these modules does not mean that they will be used properly, consistently or at all within the IT Organization.  I’ve seen a Project Management team use the Problem Management module of a tool “because no one else was” to create issue tickets for their Projects. Then when I asked the ITSM Manager if they had Problem Management in place, I was told “[Our ITSM Platform] has that capability and see there are even records in the Problem Management module.”

Ensure your processes are defined and those with Agent/Support access to your ITSM Platform know how the Platform supports those processes. I also recommend hiding modules you’re not ready to use from the Platform menu.

“We had training on that once.”

This response is often an indicator of a process being implemented and proper training given at the time, but the momentum was not maintained in order to embed (and even improve) the process and therefore it’s not providing the value that was intended and expected.  Everyone needs refresher training and reminders about the benefits of the processes after they’ve been implemented. New members of staff need to have initial training – ideally by the Process Owner / Manager who will ensure the training provided is aligned with the goals and benefits of the process. If it’s been a while since training’s been provided, it’s likely the process is not being followed as intended (if at all) and the results and benefits of the process are not being achieved.

“We have reports that measure that.”

If there’s one thing ITSM loves, it’s reports.  And every ITSM platform comes with several “canned” reports.  But are your reports aligned with your targets? Are your reports regularly reviewed against those targets to determine progress?  If they are reviewed, with whom (just Management?)? Are successes and improvements promoted? Are targets re-evaluated and removed or new ones added when IT focus needs to change to align with Business’s change in focus?

I often advise that reports are the starting point to asking the questions, dig deeper and make decisions. Simply having and distributing reports is not enough. You need to regularly review them with the right audience, evaluate whether the targets are still the right ones to focus on, and if the results you are seeing are what you want to be seeing – and if not, why not?

If you think “The Checklist Illusion” is impacting the success of ITSM in your Organization, here are some steps you can take to correct this:

  • Ensure there is a Process Owner / Manager for each process you have in place. This person is accountable for the process(es) being followed, embedded, and improved. While it might not be appropriate for your IT Organization to have one Owner / Manager per process, in order to commit sufficient time to the role, it’s key that this person isn’t wearing all of the ITSM hats (i.e. Please do not make your Service Desk Manager the Incident, Problem, Change and Asset Manager as well.).
  • Identify all stale documents, procedures, reports, targets, etc. and identify an approach to review, revitalize – and in some cases – relaunch them. At this time, determine and commit to the frequency of review and follow-up to ensure they do not go dormant again.
  • Engage those in IT who will be using the processes and ask for their help in being part of the renewal of ITSM. Getting the right partners on your side will go a long way in reducing the resistance and providing the energy to move forward with re-introduction and maintain momentum.
  • Engage a consulting firm such as OwlPoint to review your current state and identify recommendations and next-step planning to get your ITSM Program back on track to benefit IT and the Business.