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Managing Issues

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What is an issue? The simplest definition is something that takes up your time but which you did not plan to do.

An issue is something that was a risk but now has happened. It can seem like a bit of a nuisance, but issues are one of the main reasons that projects and processes fail. Issues therefore need deliberate management rather than trying to handle them on the fly.

Work is divided into two types of activity. First, there are planned activities. These are actions that, by and large, create value and contribute towards delivering goods and services to customers. Issues, on the other hand, are not planned. They are the unexpected items that crop up and leech time away from the planned activities, distracting you with short-term urgencies that prevent on-time deliveries. If you do not manage them, it can be easy to descend into barely-managed chaos, where managers start to look more like headless chickens than organised professionals.

A particularly pernicious pattern that may be familiar to quality professionals is where delivery dates are sustained by cutting quality-related activities, which of course creates another significant risk.

There are two types of issue: those which are foreseen and those which are not. A critical part of planning is in looking for potential issues. We call these risks, and risk management is used to reduce the chance of the issues occurring, the impact they might have, and getting ready for when they actually occur. Good risk planning will identify and pre-empt important possible issues, but will be unlikely to foresee all of them.

Unforeseen issues can be more troublesome. These can come in two styles. First there are the myriad small things that eat up your time in a kind of ‘death by a thousand cuts’. None is particularly difficult, but there are so many the net result is that you spend more time on these midges than on planned activities. The other kind of problematic issue is the low probability, high impact event (sometimes called a ‘black swan’) that requires significant, urgent action and can hold up the whole show for an indeterminate period. In either case you might either have to get in additional resources or otherwise reschedule the main work.

A good practice in project planning is to include ‘buffer space’ in which to handle the inevitable issues that will come up. A surprisingly good rule of thumb in projects is, unless you have a strong control over all variables, to take the planned time and multiply it by two.

A classic way of managing issues is through an Issue Log, typically a spreadsheet or database application. Issues are recorded here may include:

  • Date
  • Description
  • Analysis of impact
  • Red/Amber/Green status
  • Actions required
  • Owners of actions
  • Dates by which actions should be completed
  • Reporting notes on action completion
  • Date issue closed

Critical in managing issues is the balance between putting out the fires they create and getting on with the day job. One way of ensuring this is to include discussion of issues as a standard part of the progress management meetings, along with planned activities. If issues start to eat more time than allowed, you may have to re-organise, add resources or slip the project.

After a project is completed, it is a good idea to review the issues that arose with the purpose of improving risk and issue management in future projects.


Next time: Decision Management


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Chartered Quality Institute


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