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Don’t mistake continual service improvement for a mature IT strategy

Computer Weekly recently published a great article about continual service improvement (CSI), by Vernon Lloyd. Vernon says that service providers should “continually be looking for ways to improve the services they deliver or to introduce new services that enable new or better business outcomes to be achieved”.  He goes on to describe the use of a CSI register to record and manage improvement opportunities, the importance of categorization and prioritization, and making sure that the benefits are realized. The article finishes with a discussion of the value of assessments in providing input to CSI.


I agree with Vernon that CSI is an essential capability for any service provider. In fact when someone asks me which ITIL process they should implement first, I often answer CSI, because this will provide the environment for them to grow and mature all the other processes.


An organization that implements good ITSM processes, and then relies on CSI to keep improving their efficiency and effectiveness can become very good at what they do, and this can give them a significant competitive advantage, for a while, but there will always come a point where continuing to improve what you already do is not enough. To keep ahead of the competition you need to think about transforming what you do, rather than continuing to do the same things more efficiently.


Imagine a bookshop that may have spent 20 years improving their stock control, creating imaginative window displays, encouraging customers through the door with continual improvement in the value they offer. Is this enough to enable them to remain in business for the next 20 years? Or do they need to stand back and think about what they do, as well as how well they do it? The reason they need to change their strategy is because the external environment has changed, many consumers prefer to use new technology to purchase and consume information.


When IT service providers start to think about transformation they should consider the outcomes that are valuable to their customers, and how these have changed over time. They need to look at what markets and customers they are serving, and whether these will continue to be right in the future. Above all they have to think “are we doing the right things?” as well as “are we doing things right?” This is the first step towards creating a strategy.


If the senior management in your IT organization haven’t stepped back from operational issues to ask these sorts of questions then you run the risk of being left behind, of becoming the bricks and mortar bookshop of the virtual world.


If you want more ideas about how to start thinking strategically then read some of my other blogs:

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‎03-09-2012 01:31 PM - edited ‎03-09-2012 01:32 PM

 The instant gratification of continuous improvement can be quite attractive compared to the fear, uncertainty and doubt of tackling a new disruptive business/operational approach. It can be even worse when the organization that needs to make the change is a customer/consumer.

Stuart_Rance | ‎03-09-2012 01:39 PM

Continual improvement is absolutely essential, but I do agree that many organizations are scared to implement transformational change.This can really limit their opportunities, as they make changes too late and too reluctantly, with too little planning.


Joe_Albano_PhD | ‎03-09-2012 03:16 PM

Hi Stuart -  


My first reaction to your post was “of course – but it’s important to remember that service improvement and introducing new services are two different activities that occur in two different parts of the organization.” Improvement is past-referenced: it looks at how things were done in the past and uses that as a reference point. Truly new services are future-referenced: they look to the past for lessons learned, but then release the past and use a desired future as their reference point. 


These two approaches require different types of investments and different types of management/leadership. The challenge here is that when we “continually [look] for ways to improve the services they deliver or to introduce new services that enable new or better business outcomes to be achieved” we tent to concentrate on improvement initiatives and believe that these initiatives provide the structure for defining and introducing new services.

Stuart_Rance | ‎03-09-2012 04:00 PM



I think you make a very good point. ITIL describes continual improvement as having a dual role,

  1. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of IT
  2. Ensuring that the service portfolio continues to be aligned to business needs

And there is an implication that these two can both be achieved by following a single continual improvement process.


You are right to say that these are very different things, which will usually need to be managed by different people following different approaches with different goals and metrics. Most actual CSI work that I see is related to the first of these, making gradual improvements. Even when an organization includes reviewing the service portfolio as part of their continual improvement they rarely put in place the kind of strategic review that I was discussing above.


Joe_Albano_PhD | ‎03-09-2012 04:49 PM

Perhaps one of the challenges is our near insatiable hunger for “low-hanging fruit”. It seems that we are often so fixated on the lowest cost solution that we miss the most cost-effective approach. The need for different levels of attention based on level of investment is already inherent in most management systems: if you want approval for longer-term, more expensive programs, you need higher levels of management approval. 


This is an excellent case for clear governance. If senior management spends too much of its time overseeing incremental improvements, then they do not have the time and attention necessary to make the investments necessary in new service creation. In order to free up senior leaders time, then must establish a governance structure that pushes decision-making responsibility lower into the organization and then builds organizational capability to make and implement good decisions. 

Stuart_Rance | ‎03-09-2012 05:20 PM

This sounds very similar to the discussion in my previous blog Prioritizing Time to Get Started on Strategic Planning.


IT Management has to understand the need to manage different planning horizons, rather than always focussing on the short term operational issues.

Margaret Hanlon | ‎03-14-2012 03:30 PM

As you say Stuart in your example "the external environment has changed". In order to transform, senior IT management need to not only step back but  be able to step outside their world and see what is happening in the the broader universe.   Important clues to what the business really needs can be found in the "shadow" IT solutions that have emerged and are funded directly by individual business units.  Rather than seeing these "shadow" IT solutions as threats, they can be seen as opportunities to be leveraged and help IT understand the desired outcomes of the transformational journey. 

Stuart_Rance | ‎03-14-2012 04:06 PM



This is the first time I have heard someone explaining how Shadow IT can be a benfit to the IT organization, but I think you are absolutely right. If we pay attention to what our customers are doing then we have an opportunity to learn about how the competitive environment is changing.

urbano.freitas | ‎03-15-2012 05:31 PM

I agree definitely that the focus of CSI should be in customers’ needs or customers future needs (the ones we can preview).

The reason why CSI activities are so much times de-phased of what they should really be is, my opinion, that IT clients primary clients, generally, are internal clients (as IT is not the business support service, not the service/product the company provides), not customers. And internal clients, generally, are more focused in optimize or resolve their actual problems (reduce expenses, etc), or their clients immediately requests.

So the two things I think can help to better define what CSI plans should be in practice is:

-          Have a sort of CSI activities committee that have stakeholders of different departments of the company, and decide what activities should be follow. This would allow to have different insights and better mix current priorities with future priorities and so create also a strategic view of where IT services should be in future.

Always define a mix of operational, tactical and strategic CSI to execute. This would allow, to address short-term needs/problems (operational), medium-term (tactical) and allowing the always desired optimization of current services happen, and finally prepare the future long term initiatives (the strategic ones)

Stuart_Rance | ‎03-15-2012 05:46 PM



Thank you for your comment.


I do agree that you need to haved a board or committee that reviews and prioritises improvement opportunities, but I am not convinced that you can use the same CSI process for strategic improvements as is used for managing operational and tactical improvements.


Ian Clayton | ‎06-08-2012 12:10 AM

Well at last we are discussing something every IT organization should have embedded at their very core and operate on a daily, ongoing, non-projkect related basis.  I just wish we would forget the service aspect however and focus on the silent 'C' - the customer, their outcomes and the activities we help them perform in pursuit of those outcomes.


I use the term 'continuous improvement', the outer wrapper for CSI, because CSI comes later, when we know how customer actions drive th einternal work effort of the provider. CSI, and especially as defined within ITIL, lures you into an 'inside-out', process centric approach that can result in more mature processes, yet have no lasting effect on customer results or satisfaction levels.


As for starting with an ITIL process - then you should start with problem management as this is at the heart of every CIP/CSI set of practices.  Unfortunately, ITIL has placed problem in a different book than CSI and offered scant guidance on ho wthey interoperate, just that they do.  Also, ITIL does not explain how to define a problem and its impact upon each stakeholder community in such a way that it unlocks the support of change.


So I might suggest that ITIL CSI has two major hurdles to overcome - avoiding an inside-out bias, and enabling change in the mids of those you need onside by exploiting proven problem management methods absent from thge ITIL definition of the process.


Meanwhile, I'm encouraged by the epiphany that continuous improvement is what we should be talking about as long as it is related to the customer.  The days of ITSM/ITIL projects are long gone...  Isnt this what an IT oprganization should be doing anyway??????

Stuart_Rance | ‎06-08-2012 01:06 AM



Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I have a huge amount of respect for the 'outside-in' concept that you have introduced to how we all think about service management.


Many ITIL concepts are split across multiple books, and I don't think this is necessarily problematic, but I do agree that the link between problem management and continual improvement could be more explicit and I will submit an ITIL changelog to suggest this for a future edition.


lisboa | ‎07-11-2012 03:53 PM

When your CSI innovations go against the inherent nature of the culture of your customer, the efforts can take a turn for the worse.  While there's nothing wrong with CSI that chafes with the current culture of your client, it's critical to be conscious that Management of Change is equally critical to the success of your efforts.


An observation I have on a current engagement is that the client culture for support is very e-mail centric.  (Send it and forget it.)  Trying to propose live engagement through Chat or self-support actions requires a conscious awareness of the IT Leadership that they are steering their employees into new territory and it will take a new culture from the top down to make these new services successful.


Services without a supported business culture won't reach the expected success/return.



Stuart_Rance | ‎07-11-2012 04:40 PM



I fully agree with you,


I recently saw a statement from Barclay Rae that said "Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast Lunch and dinner", which sums this up better than I ever could. Everything we do has to fit the culture of our customers, or it will not succeed.

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I help clients use service management to create business value for themselves and their customers. I am a senior ITIL examiner and I have wr...

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