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Incidents vs. Problems

by in Incident Management
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The concepts of incidents and problems can be confusing and I’m often asked “When does an incident turn into a problem?”  The answer is, never.

Incidents are symptoms; problems are the cause. To illustrate the difference, an analogy may help.


Suppose you go home from work and you pull into your driveway.  Your house just happens to be two doors down from a four-way intersection. You notice an accident between two cars at the intersection. You might say “Huh, an accident. Imagine that.” and then go on your way.

The next day when you arrive home you see another accident at the intersection involving two different cars. Your response may be “Another accident? What a coincidence.”

On the third day, you notice yet another accident. You now see a pattern emerging.  This time, however, you choose to investigate. You know that there is a problem but don’t quite know what it is.

Upon closer inspection, you notice that your neighbor’s rose bush has grown over the stop sign so it cannot be easily seen by traffic. You want to chop the rose bush down but in today’s highly litigious society, you are reluctant to do so. Instead, you ask permission from the neighbor that owns the rose bush.

After knocking on the door, no one answers. Although you decided not to cut down the rose bush, you know that you must take action and so you locate an old moving box in your garage. To prevent accidents at the intersection, you take matters into your own hands and spray paint the word “STOP” on all four sides of the box and place the box in the intersection. This serves to let drivers know that they need to stop until you can get the problem resolved.

When your neighbor arrives home from work, you then talk to them and let them know about the rose bush and how it has grown up over the stop sign. Your neighbor did not know about the issue and isn’t familiar with pruning techniques.

You spend a little time with your neighbor and a pair of pruning shears, demonstrating how to trim the rose bush to prevent it from growing over the stop sign.  Your neighbor is delighted now that they know how to trim the rose bush and that it may keep them from getting a citation.

Since the problem has been solved, you remove the box from the intersection and go home to spend time with your family knowing that there should be no further accidents at that intersection.

In this analogy, each accident is an incident. An incident is a disruption of some sort. When a trend in accidents (incidents) was noticed, you became aware of a problem.  A problem is the unknown cause of one or more incidents. Upon investigation, you realized the cause of the problem was the rose bush that had grown too big. The rose bush is the error — the fault that occurred.  The box that you placed in the intersection is known as a workaround — a temporary remedy to restore service for which a full resolution is not yet available.  Once you notified you neighbor about the rose bush issue, it became a known error, meaning, your neighbor knows about it and knows what to do.

Incidents and problems are separate things. Each accident is an example of an incident and may be handled independently. The cause of one or more incidents, the problem, is also separate and may be handled independently. Incidents and problems, however, are related. Each incident may be linked to a specific problem, as you became aware of after noticing a number of accidents at the intersection.

So when people ask you what the difference is between an incident and a problem, remember that each accident is an incident and the rose bush is a problem. However, be prepared to explain further.

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I've been an ITIL instructor for over a decade teaching thousands of students around the world. My satisfaction comes from the "lightbulb" moment when students "get it". During these times I can see how they have figured out how to solve an issue that they have been struggling with or they see the vision of how their organization can become more competitive.

I teach primarily virtual courses which allows me to continue to connect with students without the stress of travel. My wife and three dogs appreciate this too.


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