Every IT staff member should observe the Service Desk

In Lean, there’s a common saying: “Go to the gemba [real place]”–the place where activity occurs. Administrators shouldn’t talk about work third- or fourth-hand but instead they should observe the work directly. Taiichi Ohno went so far as to draw a physical circle on the shop floor and require managers stand inside the circle until they had observed several improvement opportunities.

And in fact that’s quite challenging in IT, as there is no physical shop floor. It is difficult to observe work as it is performed, and as it’s passed from person to person. Instead, IT staff sit in cubes typing on computers.

But at least in higher education, there is usually one physical place that can be visited: the Service Desk.

The Service Desk is the interface between campus and IT. It receives and places phone calls; it handles walk-ins; it escalates issues to other IT teams; and it is the face of your IT organization.

Because of the tight relationships between the Service Desk and the rest of the IT organization, I believe every IT staff member should visit the Service Desk.

Identify improvements

They should visit for an hour, or for half a day, and they should identify improvements for both the Service Desk and for their own zone of control.

For example, let’s say the systems team maintains your campus listserves, which are requested via the Service Desk. In observing the Service Desk, a systems administrator may notice that the Service Desk staff do not understand the data required, or the process takes many steps and is error-prone. Perhaps this explains some of the frustrating tickets the systems team has received, requesting that newly-created listserves be renamed. The systems administrator may identify training issues for the Service Desk (“you should have a knowledge base entry for how to create listserves, and don’t forget you must always check this box”) and for the systems team (“if we change the tool so you have to type in the name twice then we won’t get as many renaming requests”).

Given the deep interactions between the Service Desk and the rest of the organization, there are many opportunities for process improvement that can only be identified by technical experts observing the actual work performed.

However, that’s not the only reason to have people visit the Service Desk.

Build empathy for the Service Desk

I was fortunate to attend an ITIL Simulation at one year’s itSMFusion conference. I was assigned to the Service Desk.

Within two minutes, customers in the simulation were yelling at me. I like to think of myself as a competent person, yet I was overwhelmed by being asked the status of earlier requests and I was told it’s my job to solve their problems. When in fact I did not have the ability to solve their problems… I had the ability to take notes and send them on to someone else who might solve the problem.

Service Desk staff have a tough job: they own every IT service, and they field calls and support every IT user. As I mentioned in the August “Service Desk and a strategic function” presentation, the Service Desk by design deals with unhappy people while trying to represent both users and IT staff.

And yet, unfortunately Service Desk staff often receive little respect within IT. Service Desks often have high turnover, meaning other IT teams must re-train staff. Service Desks are trying to work quickly under high pressure, and may escalate tickets that shouldn’t be escalated and generally make mistakes. And if people don’t understand the Service Desk’s role, they may not respect the Service Desk.

Rick Matthews, my former boss, has a great model for trust-building: understanding leads to respect, and respect leads to trust. In this case, by having IT staff visit the Service Desk builds understanding.

IT staff can then see the complaints and the stress and the re-training that’s needed first-hand, and then perhaps develop empathy as they start to understand the job and how they can better work with the Service Desk.

Building a trusting relationship between the Service Desk and IT staff is critical for making everyone’s lives easier because it encourages IT staff to listen to the Service Desk. The Service Desk, in many ways, runs what the rest of IT builds. The better the Service Desk is understood, the better the resulting service for campus.

Start with your CIO

So, consider having every IT staff member visit the Service Desk: ideally, visiting in a quiet, listening mode where they observe the activities. Start with your CIO: one visit from the CIO can send a big message, to the Service Desk and the rest of the IT organization, about the importance of understanding and observing work where it actually occurs.