The Ultimate Guide to Continual Service Improvement

Sophie Danby June 26, 2023
- 12 min read

Continual Service Improvement or CSI is the fifth and final stage in the ITIL service lifecycle. If you live in an ITIL 4 world, you might have heard of it as just Continual Improvement. It drives service improvements and ensures all improvement ideas and possibilities are captured, prioritized, and acted on. Basically, it provides a structure on which to drive progress.

This article we will define what Continual Service Improvement implies and the benefits implementing it can bring to your service operations. Luckily, CSI is all about guidelines ready to be put into practice. So, we will also go through the seven steps defined in the process and see some real life examples to start right away.

Let's get into it!

Continual Service Improvement definition

Continual Service Improvement aims to align IT services with changing business needs. It looks to first identify and analyze all the elements involved in delivering service. Then, it implements the spotted improvements to IT services in order to support business processes. In other words, it keeps IT relevant and placed to help the business now and in the future.

Having a CSI process in place means that the organization can exploit or make the best use of existing technology, and also evaluate and explore new technology that will help deliver more valuable business outcomes.

CSI and the Deming Cycle

A practical way of understanding CSI is to see how it relates to the Deming Cycle. There are a lot of similarities: both are cyclical, and they can help organizations stay aligned with the stakeholder needs, optimize services, and reduce potential errors. Also, the two methods are promoted in the ITIL CSI guidance, and they complement each other.

CSI uses a 7-step model that progresses improvements in small, achievable work packages. We'll address that topic in more depth further on, so don’t worry. The Deming Cycle, on the other hand, consists of a four-step process:

  • Plan (setting objectives).
  • Do (implementing the improvement).
  • Check (reviewing the results against the desired outcomes).
  • Act (making necessary adjustments and looking at what to improve next). 

Continual vs Continuous Service Improvement

So, what's the difference between continual and continuous? They're the same thing, right? Not quite. ITIL advocates a continual improvement approach. This approach works by having defined phases where there will be improvements, followed by a pause or stability period to let the improvement settle or "bed in", and its impact can be evaluated, after which further improvements are made. 

Continuous improvement is an uninterrupted effort to improve processes, products, and services. There are no distinct phases, stability periods, or formal evaluation, just continuous delivery and improvement. Both have their own merit depending on your organization, operating cadence, and appetite for governance and risk.

ITIL v3 Continual Service Improvement

ITIL v3 places CSI in the fifth stage of the lifecycle. It is also the stage that interacts with every other step of the lifecycle and every other process as it improves the services that have been strategized, designed, transitioned, and operated

ITIL 4 Continual Service Improvement

ITIL 4 has expanded the service lifecycle to the service value system, or SVS. Service operation sits in the SVS and applies to all aspects of the SVS.

Six benefits of CSI

Having a solid framework to rely on to define service improvements throughout your organization has many benefits. Let’s see some of them:

  • Service improvement becomes embedded in the organization and becomes a priority rather than a "nice to have."
  • The CSI register ensures that all ideas for improvement are captured and nothing is lost or forgotten about.
  • Having a defined process also means continually improving service quality that delivers sustainably.
  • It guarantees continuous alignment and back and forth between IT services and business requirements.
  • Gradual improvements in cost-effectiveness are also ensured.
  • Opportunities for improvement are identified in organizational structures, resourcing capabilities, partners, technology, staff skills and training, and communications. 

The Continual Service Improvement process

The CSI process holistically examines the overall performance and capabilities of services, processes, partners, and technology. It is in place to ensure continual alignment of the IT services portfolio with the current and future business needs. 

The whole CSI process can be summarized in 6 main questions to guide your analysis:

  1. What is the vision? Talking to the business and understanding requirements.
  2. Where are we now? Carrying out a baseline exercise to understand the current situation and what needs to be improved.
  3. Where do we want to be? Working with the vision to create a tangible delivery outcome that gets the business to where they want to be.
  4. How do we get there? The improvement steps needed to get from the current (and thankfully now baselined) state to the future state agreed with the business.
  5. Did we get there? How do we ensure we have accomplished everything we set out to do? What reports and metrics can we use to check?
  6. How do we keep the momentum going? CSI isn't a one-and-done activity (the clue is in the name), it's continual improvement: we've made some improvements, and the business is happy, so what will we do next?

The seven steps of Continual Service Improvement

The process can also be broken down in seven practical steps to be addressed as achievable work packages:

  1. Identify and define the improvement strategy - Remember the A-team? They always had a plan, and it's the same with CSI. Effective CSI activity cannot be done in isolation, so engage with the business to create a solid strategy and scope. This will include objectives communicated to and agreed on by all.

  2. Define what to measure - In business, you need data to drive effective decision-making. In this step, you will determine the metrics, CSFs (Critical Success Factors) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that will be used to measure the performance of IT services. These measurements should be aligned with the improvement objectives identified in the previous step.

  3. Collect the data - This step involves collecting the data. In an ideal world, you'll have an IT Service Management tool with a centralized platform to make this straightforward and save time. Examples of data to be collected include incident records from the service desk and support teams, customer feedback, problem records, and data from monitoring tools.

  4. Process the data - This step involves taking a first pass at the data you collected in the previous step to identify any large-scale trends or areas of concern.

  5. Analyze the collected data - The high-level trends identified in the previous stage help you dig deeper. Now you're looking for the root cause of any problem areas to develop solutions and improvement initiatives. 

  6. Present and use the information - A.K.A., reporting back to the business and getting buy-in for the next steps. This stage is all about communication, so IT and the business can agree on the best way forward.

  7. Implement the improvement - Basically, do the thing (and, of course, consider what's next)! This stage involves planning and implementing the improvement, checking the outcome against the metrics you've already defined in the second step, and looking at what to improve next. 

Of course, you can easily implement most of these steps with InvGate Service Desk. You can request our 30-day free trial to see how it collects, processes, analyzes, and reports the information needed to implement a CSI process.



Continual Service Improvement example

So many people get flustered about CSI; they think it will be too big a task or won't deliver value to the business. Improvement projects often fail because the scope is too big or undefined.

If we have to give you just one piece of advice, it would be to start small. To borrow a guiding principle from ITIL 4 - "keep it simple and practical." CSI doesn't have to be daunting, it doesn't have to be a big or all-encompassing project. It just has to be a force for good, so let's take a look at some real-life, practical examples

  • You can't fix everything - as long as we have technology and people use it, we'll always have IT issues. But what can we do? Look at the top ten or even the top five most commonly reported issues to the service desk and try to fix them.

  • Create knowledge base articles or simple how-to guides for technicians and end-users alike that can be used to troubleshoot simple, routine issues.

  • Use standard changes and delegated authority to reduce the strain on the Change Management practices and increase flow.

  • Use automation and run books to streamline the Event Management process and make it more efficient. 

See? CSI doesn't have to be scary! Let's work through a real-life example. We have picked an email case because, whether we like it or not, we all use it, and sometimes it's slow. Maybe not-show-stopping slow to the extent that the business can't operate, but it's a definite source of annoyance. Let's work through our CSI process.

What is the vision?  First, we will chat with the business to agree on what the future state should look like. At this stage, it’s convenient to keep it relatively high level. It will be something like "the email application performs in line with business needs, and there is no lag time or performance issues."
Where are we now? Time to get our geek on. We will review our data: incident records relating to emails, problem records about poor performance, and capacity data related to throughput demand and performance. We will sit down again and talk with our stakeholders to get an accurate service baseline.
Where do we want to be? We will agree on a target outcome. Essentially, what good looks like. This could be something like "the email application performs in line with business needs, it hits these KPIs for throughput, performance and demand, and there are less than X number for poor performance incidents per calendar month." 
How do we get there? We create a plan of action. This could involve the email team looking at the email application and any underpinning databases, the network team looking at any bandwidth issues or potential sources of contention, and the server team looking at any physical servers on which the email application sits. We will break each improvement stand into small, achievable work packages so that each area of investigation can be addressed quickly and effectively.
Did we get there?   This step concerns returning to the business and reviewing performance against the previously created baseline. Has the service improved? Have the KPIs been met? What about customer satisfaction? Are folks happier with the email service now?
How do we keep the momentum going? To finish off the process and after analyzing how far we’ve come, we will look into what we can do to make email even better.

CSI roles and responsibilities

List the roles involved in this stage and their primary responsibilities:

Role Responsibilities
CSI Manager Runs and coordinates the CSI process.
Process Manager Runs any day-to-day processes needing improvement.
Service Desk and Incident Manager Provides incident and customer satisfaction data that may drive improvements.
Problem Manager A.K.A. experts in trend analysis that help the CSI manager identify any common themes or problem areas.

Continual Service Improvement metrics

Some of the most common KPIs to measure CSI include:

  • The number of services improved.
  • Number of items in the CSI register.
  • Customer satisfaction rate after implementation of service improvement activity.
  • The number of completed CSI initiatives.

Continual Service Improvement certification

The most relevant service improvement qualification is the AXELOS certification. The CSI module is one of the ITIL v3 Service Lifecycle workstream certifications. It focuses on improving IT services and covers the models, processes, policies and techniques that will enable delegates to improve services effectively. Ideal candidates include roles that work in the lifecycle's CSI stage, such as analysts and managers.

Final thoughts

Essentially, CSI aims to align IT services with changing business needs by both identifying and implementing improvements to IT services that support business processes. It is the fifth and final stage in the service lifecycle and, as such, looks through everything that has been defined in the previous stages.

Continual improvement might seem slightly fuzzy or hard to put your hands on. And this is where CSI comes in as a practical tool. The process is divided into seven individual stages to be followed that ensure each improvement initiative is achievable, actionable, and effective. As with most new things, we recommend to start with small improvements and work your way up to bigger tasks.

If you want to get the most out of this stage, consider InvGate Service Desk's  Service Management features to better analyze your service performance. Ask for a 30-day free trial and see for yourself.

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