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ITSM And The First Law Of Thermodynamics

Give and take. Yin and Yang. Balance is a good thing, writes ITSMWatch columnist Jack Probst of Pink Elephant.
Apr 23, 2010

Jack Probst

Whether it’s work/life balance or balancing one’s checkbook, the balance concept drives decisions based on a premise that we can’t do more than the capacity of our available resources.

I ran across the balance idea early and often during my education. For instance, as an engineering student, I slugged my way through thermodynamics. "Thermo", as we called it, is built on a number of key but fundamental principles or laws. Without boring you with the details, the first law promoted the concept of more or less, otherwise known as you can’t get something for nothing.

So, what does balance and the first law of thermodynamics have to do with IT service management (ITSM)? In the words of my hero Rickey Ricardo, " ... let me ‘splain."

One of the challenges we face daily in IT is to effectively manage and deliver services while dealing with the ever-changing landscape of priorities. This tableau of shifting priorities clearly impacts our ability to maintain the balance of a department’s work assignments and keep the customer satisfied. And, of course, it seems that stream of priorities never ends.

My guess is that you deal regularly with not just the day to day management of applications or the infrastructure, but you also juggle development projects and deal with the crises of the day. You also have to deal with that last-minute-drop-everything project request (aka, demand) from the marketing department to support the product release scheduled for Monday morning.

The IT management challenge seems to be the never ending struggle of how to manage the balance of the demands on IT without the wheels coming off the cart and keeping the business happy. The solution lies in the idea that you can’t get something for nothing.

In today’s tough economy, IT is resource constrained. On top of that there is also the challenge of finding the best way to actively engage the business in priority decisions ― after all, they have a critical stake in that conversation. Although it’s not a silver bullet, I find that IT organizations are taking a more aggressive approach to developing, implementing and managing service portfolios, then leveraging the portfolio as a concept to help communicate and manage the balance of the department.

The service portfolio defines the lifecycle of a single service, the investment of the organization in IT and how resources are best allocated to support the strategic, tactical and operational requirements. So, for purpose of managing the balance of IT services, the service portfolio serves as a vehicle for two key decisions: The service investment strategy, which optimizes the return of the organization in service investments; and managing the balance of the ongoing demand for key resources

In both cases, the decisions require consideration of balancing expectations with realities or applying the first law.

Service Portfolio Strategy

In the case of the service portfolio strategy, the portfolio investments should be grounded in the overall business strategy and support the business mission. As the collection of IT services enable or foster the organization’s ability to sustain the strategy, careful regard for the right balance of services needed to support the business is a key consideration. In other words, the strategy and its implementation should be sufficiently dynamic to balance business needs. An example of these needs is the business requiring more emphasis on financial reporting to support regulatory requirements or a shift into a new market requiring a new service which sustains point of sale solutions via hand held devices.

The available choices are endless, however the notion of balance says that we can’t do it all. So, what’s the optimal choice considering all solutions? Which will maximize the business return on service investment? Because I can’t get something for nothing, the business must balance all the possibilities with the reality that there are only so many financial, technical and human resources that can support the solution.

Managing this balance is possible through a lifecycle approach to the service investment portfolio. A lifecycle approach consistently delivers a balanced set of decisions based on the service portfolio management (SPM) process. Although SPM provides guidance for the decision process I have found that organizations implementing it need more.

Expanding SPM, to manage the balance of the service investment decisions requires rethinking the inputs to the SPM analyze and approve process activities. At the heart of the balance equation, and the piece of portfolio management that most organizations miss, is including an approach, within SPM, that aids in allocating scarce resources (financial, human, etc.) with an objective of optimizing the overall portfolio return. Remember, we can’t get something for nothing. The crux of the matter comes down to balancing resource scarcity with making the best investment decision for the organization.

An approach that I’ve found works well is evaluating projects and assigning them to predefined categories and then budgeting or pre-allocating resources to each category. In this way, projects compete for the pre-allocated resources only with projects of similar ilk. Then project priority decisions are focused on optimizing the decisions for each category. The category budgets serve as the funding pool for the portfolio decisions directed by the project governance body. As an example (adapted from the ITIL service strategy approach), typical investment categories include:

  • Grow the business – service initiatives which extend or support the current business model and product suite.
  • Transform the business – service initiatives which expand the business model into uncharted markets or support new products.
  • Run the business – service initiatives which assure the operational health of the basic foundations of the business and IT infrastructure.
  • Stop doing – initiatives which will retire/replace existing services, products or parts of the operational infrastructure.

To assure that the balance is sustained, the decisions are not "one and done". Instead, the lifecycle approach provides the necessary feedback both to project governance and serving as input for the next round of potential projects.

The lifecycle approach and portfolio budgeting addresses the first balance condition. However to get one’s collective arms around balancing the ongoing priorities of the day to day world of IT, a queue management discipline is needed.

Queue Management Strategy

The concept of queue management is similar to the thought process that we use on a Saturday morning at the superstore to decide which checkout line to use. It doesn’t take time to look into shopping cart, estimate how much time I think it’ll take to complete the check out process, look at all the checkout lines filled with customers, remember which cashier is the quickest and decide which line will get me through the fastest.

Managing the shopping queue requires an understanding that the capacity of the shopping queue and the potential queue clearing skill of the cashier. And of course, a decision option includes putting everything on hold by doing additional shopping in the sporting goods department or come back another day when the lines aren’t as long.

IT organizations are applying similar approaches these days through a manifestation of demand management. Their approach is to balance and adjust the balance of incoming work to the department with the capabilities of the organization.

Queue management calls for determining in advance the work capacity of the department; potentially down to the individual level. The capacity should include allocations for break/fix tasks, project initiatives teed up by portfolio decisions and ongoing maintenance efforts. The key is the recognition of balance: the work capacity is limited and only so much work can be done given capacity constraints.

Tasks are then allocated or queued up for assignment. Assignments are made based on available slack in individual work queues. So, instead of assigning all work as it comes into the department, a balance is struck where work is held in a holding queue until the store line clears and work is assigned. Typically work queues are recharged ever week or so. This eliminates the feeling of never seeing one’s in-box going down.

Although this feels scientific, the reality is that implementation is a learning process. From the beginning the organization learns how to allocate work and work capacity estimations improve. As the practice improves, refinements are made. There is, however, a point of diminishing return. Just remember we are practicing you can’t get something for nothing.

The greatest benefit that queue management brings to the table is that after the practice is in place, management has a clear picture of what’s possible and that promises won’t be made to the business, which clearly can’t be met without a shift in resource levels or priorities or application of the first law.

I suggest applying the concepts of balance in a staged fashion. Tee up the portfolio balancing concept when the organization is preparing its next round of project decisions ― potentially at the start of the annual budget cycle. Implementing a balance of IT work priorities will require integration legwork. I have seen this approach aligned with the implementation or upgrading of the project office or establishing project management discipline.

Sustain the balance.

Jack Probst has a diverse management, business and technical background, and he delivers strategic process consulting and advanced ITIL training and education programs as a Principal Consultant for Pink Elephant. An ITIL Expert, Jack previously served as the leader of an ITIL implementation initiative at a Fortune 100 organization. Jack is a seasoned speaker and graduate-level educator and is a member of the (itSMF) Academic Subcommittee that was recognized with the 2007 Industry Knowledge Contribution Award.

ITIL, ITSM, service management, Pink Elephant, balance

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