Definition

continual service improvement

Contributor(s): Stephen J. Bigelow

Continual service improvement is a method to identify and execute opportunities to make IT processes and services better, and to objectively measure the effects of these efforts over time. It can be abbreviated as CSI.

The underlying concept of continual service improvement is rooted in the philosophies on quality put forth by 20th-century management consultant and expert W. Edwards Deming. The Deming Circle involves a four-step loop of plan, do, check and act. The Deming Circle is executed repeatedly to provide steady, ongoing process or service improvement. This basic business management concept was adopted into the continual improvement goals of international standard ISO 20000 for IT service management, and more broadly it underpins various IT service management (ITSM) initiatives.

ITSM includes all of the policies, processes and procedures that an organization uses to design, deploy operate and maintain a suite of IT services. Continual service improvement represents a central tenant of ITSM frameworks, such as IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) v.3, that dictate how organizations deliver access to corporate networks, important business applications such as email and other IT services.

The improvements typically enhance customer experience, boost service quality, lower costs and make processes more effective and efficient. Continual service improvement can be applied to all aspects of the ITIL framework or another lifecycle management approach, and can be used to review and assess improvement recommendations for all parts of the lifecycle. For example, continual service improvement can be used to improve ITIL service strategy, service design, service transition, service operation and even the service improvement process. Continual service improvement can be employed to drive process and service maturity, helping to manage the overall health of ITSM, and to align (and re-align) IT services with business needs. Continual service improvement can also create and foster collaborative relationships between business and IT managers, improving IT’s alignment with business goals, and helping to ensure that continual service improvement initiatives are properly supported and funded.

Continual service improvement processes

ITIL v.3 focuses on four principal processes for continual service improvement: service reviews, process evaluations, initiatives and monitoring. Service reviews are done to evaluate IT services and infrastructure on a regular basis and should reveal the need for new services, discontinuation of a service, or other quality demands. Process evaluations help to determine whether services meet intended goals. In the process evaluation, the IT team can evaluate metrics, establish benchmarks, perform audits and handle other assessments. Continual service improvement adopters can also define initiatives to improve services and processes based on reviews and evaluations. Monitoring tracks initiative effectiveness and assists in troubleshooting and refining changes, to lay the groundwork for the next round of reviews and evaluations.

Continual service improvement processes

These four general continual service improvement processes involve a diverse array of activities. For example, the IT team should perform comparisons of existing service to service-level agreements (SLAs), audit compliance with regulations and business governance rules, and poll users about opportunities for new or better services.

Continual service improvement as a practice does not involve actual deployment of its initiatives, i.e., continual service improvement does not stipulate how an initiative gets funded, scheduled or conducted, or who is involved. These details are left to the individual organization. For example, routine continual service improvement processes identify that an email server upgrade will increase the email service's availability and performance. The actual deployment of the upgrade might be handled by email administrators, or perhaps involve IT engineers or architects, depending on the technologies, skills and hierarchy of the organization.

Continual service improvement KPIs

Monitoring serves four crucial purposes: it validates previous decisions, justifies a prescribed course of action initiative, informs troubleshooting and guides planning. ITIL continual service improvement focuses on IT process and service improvements, but it is virtually impossible to perform objective assessments and make well-considered recommendations for improvements without the insights provided by monitoring relevant data metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs).

Metrics generally cover operations details, such as processor utilization, memory utilization, storage capacity and utilization, transactions per second and network latency. The metrics for specific IT services can be represented on a dashboard or other reporting tool. For example, excess storage latency related to a database application might indicate potential trouble with the disks or storage subsystem, and system administrators can review the operating metrics of that storage infrastructure to determine improvements.

KPIs generally provide a higher-level perspective focused on business objectives. Business and IT leaders use KPIs to gauge the performance of continual service improvement as a practice.

For example, a continual service improvement KPI delineates the number of service reviews conducted during a business quarter, while the number of identified weaknesses highlights the number of potential continual service improvement initiatives to evaluate. These KPIs illustrate whether continual service improvement is effective at finding things to improve.

Granular metrics can be represented within KPIs. For example, if an application's latency trends up and generates alerts due to increased user utilization, those metrics outputs roll up into a service review and appear as an identified weakness in an IT service, which leads to a continual service improvement initiative. The KPI tracking assessments that lead to initiatives does not directly relate to the latency metric, but the process it tracks is kicked off by the alert on the metric.

Continual service improvement roles

Although traditional IT roles, such as system administrator, operate easily within the continual service improvement paradigm, continual service improvement has brought several additional role designations to organizations using ITIL and overall ITSM.

The continual service improvement manager enhances improvements to ITSM and the services IT provides to the enterprise. This manager relies on metrics and KPIs to gauge the performance of each service, interfaces with business leaders to understand new or changing needs and leads the continual service improvement initiatives.

A process architect manages and optimizes processes, governing any changes to the continual service improvement processes within the enterprise. This person often works closely with process owners. Process architect can be a variant of the enterprise architect role.

Process owners sponsor, design and improve corresponding processes and associated metrics. Smaller organizations might roll process ownership and process architect responsibilities into the same role.

This was last updated in September 2018

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