Why IT Service Level Management Fails (And How to Fix It)

IT managers think IT services are different from other services. Not so. To deliver any type of service follows a few identical processes. Not understanding this is the reason for much of the pain and suffering born by IT providers and their users today.

Consider: would the owner of a quick oil-change company measure his or her service quality in terms of oil viscosity, oil splashed (or not) on the floor, choosing the right oil filter, assembling the rubber O-ring correctly, dispensing the right amount of oil, and remembering to put the oil cap and plug back in? Of course not, yet this is precisely how the average IT service level agreement (SLA) reads.

Oil change franchises measure their quality based on getting the job done fast and right. But ask yourself one question—what is the job? Oil change franchises don’t market fast oil changes. According to the websites of several top franchises they market “preserving the health and value of your vehicle” and “keep your car running well and running longer.”

What are you measuring with your SLA? Does your customer care about whatever you are measuring? Do you know what your job is or what your customers really want?

The average quick oil change service focuses on getting the consumer in and out so they can do what they really want to do. For these customers, an oil change is the means to an end. He or She needs their car to operate so they can get where they need to go. We in IT need to realize that we too are nothing more than the means to an end, and that end purpose is what we need to measure to determine IT service quality; not the bits, bytes, speeds, feeds and tasks it takes to deliver a service. Of course, monitoring the physical properties of the hardware and software are critical to IT service delivery, just as is the viscosity of the oil and remembering to put the oil cap on.

However, customers expect these things, and these things are not the primary measure of customer satisfaction. They are not even very interesting to customers. One can even argue that customers pay us (service providers) a premium to shield them from all that complexity in the first place. What they really want is to get where they are going more quickly and easily. That is, they are paying us so they can do something else better.

The oil change providers measure of quality is customer satisfaction with regard to the right job, done quickly, because this is what their customers really want. No one wants on oil change for the sake of an oil change. Yet, IT often pays only lip service to customer satisfaction, and does a haphazard job at best in trying to ascertain it. Fewer still use customer satisfaction as its primary service delivery quality measure for service level management (SLM.) The reason is not that there are other more successful SLM methods, but more often it’s fear.

SLM could and should be the voice and means for cost controls, quality improvements and competitive advantage. Yet there are too many failed SLM initiatives to count in the IT workplace, and the cost of these failures is large because it includes not only money wasted on countless software solutions, work hours and loss of focus, but also because of the opportunities lost. The problem is that services are not products. This single realization is the key to effective SLM.

Products are durable goods. The ways to measure product quality are many, and perhaps best described by Garvin’s 8 dimensions of (durable) product quality: Performance, Features, Reliability, Conformance, Durability, Serviceability, Aesthetics and Perceived Quality.

Qualities of products are also easily measured. For example, reliability can equate to “uptime” and serviceability can relate to “mean time to restore service”, and so on. Moreover, this is exactly what we see in SLA—the “operationalization” of metrics surrounding the qualities of physical goods used to create and deliver IT services. And this is precisely what causes SLA efforts to crash and burn.

Any SLA that attempts to operate in this manner is doomed because services are, as I elaborate below, intangible, heterogeneous, perishable, and inseparable:

· Intangibility – IT services are performances not objects: services cannot be inventoried, patented, readily displayed or communicated, and pricing is difficult.

· Inseparability – IT services are simultaneously created and consumed: customers participate in and affect the transaction; customers affect each other; employees affect the service outcome; decentralization may be essential; and mass production is difficult.

· Perishability – IT services have no buffer on supply: it is difficult to synchronize supply and demand with services; services cannot be returned or resold; cannot rework services; and impressions are lasting.

· Heterogeneousity – Every IT service and service encounter is unique: unique constraints, resources, and requirements.