Service Level Agreement- 3 little lies

A Service Level Agreement sounds so reasonable.

Eminently reasonable.

It sets out explicitly what will be done for a customer.

A service level agreement (SLA) is a contract between a service provider (either internal or external) and the end user that defines the level of service expected from the service provider.

SLAs are output-based in that their purpose is specifically to define what the customer will receive.

This way, there’s no arguments about whether performance is up to standard and a person is getting what they should be getting.


Except it’s total balls.
In 3 words, it manages to squeeze in 3 little lies that mean your service level agreement is none of those 3 words.

Here they are!

Lie 1: Service

If somebody does something for you, your ultimate question is “Was my problem solved?”.
This is not answered by the service in a service level agreement.
The service to be provided is the focus, not whether the problem has been solved.
The question is not “Has the problem been solved?” it is “Did we do what we said we would do?“.

This is supply side focused. Not on the demand itself and what matters to the customer, instead by defining in advance what will be done, it is taking an inside-out view, based on things that inevitably are what the supplier considers important. In advance of the actual problems to be presented.

“Service” is established and detailed in two ways that are incorrect:

  1. BEFORE the demand is presented, and therefore…
  2. WITHOUT knowledge of the specific unique demand presented each time.

If the service is defined in an agreement before the demand is presented, which it is, how can the service exactly solve the problem presented? It might partially meet the demand, if it has been defined based on knowledge of what demand has presented in the past, but it probably won’t be exactly what is needed for this problem presented right now and here.  Because people are different, their circumstances are different. Because their circumstances are different, their service should be too.

Lie 2: Level

This is a splendid word. It implies regularity, a removal of any doubts, no ifs and buts and depends-who-you-ask or the day of the week, here’s the level you will receive.
Except you don’t.
Specifying the level of service does not deliver that level of service. Remember that service is defined by what is done not by what is received, the existence of a contractual relationship queers the partnership in favour of delivering the specifics of a contract rather than helping the customer solve their problem.

Real Life Example: A customer orders a kitchen from a kitchen showroom to be delivered and fitted. The kitchen is delivered, as ordered. The kitchen fitters arrive, work for 2 days, then leave without finishing the job of fitting the kitchen. They are contracted in a SLA to work for two 8 hour days.
Once they have, they leave. Normally a kitchen can be completed in 2 days, but in this instance it couldn’t. No matter, they worked to the level specified.

Attempting to specify a level really objectively has the same effect as a numerical target, it causes unintended consequences as people will meet the numerical target (fit a kitchen for 2 days) at the expense of meeting the purpose, (fit a kitchen).
It also causes purposeful gaming, not just accidental as with the kitchen fitters. Specifying the “level” of service in numeric terms that an IT service will provide on its Helpdesk results in all sorts of cat and mouse between callers and IT who are faced with different incompatible motives.
A customer with an IT problem is motivated by “solve my IT problem“, whereas IT are motivated by “close the call as quickly as possible“. This results in calls closed without being fully solved, as a second call from the customer is just one more call to be closed within target time.
Neither the kitchen fitting or the multiple IT calls are anybody’s definition of a smooth predictable level service.

Lie 3: Agreement

The agreement is specified (see first lie, above) so it can be delivered at an objectively assured level (see second lie, above) and is guaranteed by agreement, the final lie.

Agreement” is the most reasonable part of the three little lies. Not a contract, though they actually are if made between parties who aren’t from the same organisation. Not a “service level unbreakable-oath-punishable-by-death-and-dishonour“, but an agreement.
What’s the word that comes in front of agreement? A GENTLEMAN’S agreement of course, something from a more civilised age.

Except its not really an agreement. The agreement wasn’t with you, the customer,  was it? With your problem? No, SLA’s are generally agreed years ago, by someone else, people separated from the results of this SLA and the current circumstances you as a customer are in.
SLAs are just another boring feature of command and control style management, an attempt to manage people and work from a distance, by people who won’t be delivering or receiving the work.  Because they are so far away, all they can do is manage through contractual relationships rather than by what actually matters in any given case.
It’s as accurate a way of dealing with reality as a grabber machine at the amusement arcade.
Think how often you are able to pick up a pony.  That’s how effective pre-written agreements are at guessing reality in advance. If the person was there themselves, in the situation rather than 2 years ago in another building, it would be like you just shoving your hand in that grabbing machine yourself, you’d be able to grab armfuls of the cuddly pink ponies.
Then. instead of a Service Level Agreement, they’d be in a Service Level Scenario. Right there, where the demand was being presented, ready to respond appropriately.


Service Level Agreements stink.

This entry was posted in all wrong, command and control, systems thinking, thinking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Service Level Agreement- 3 little lies

  1. bazhsw says:

    Cracking post as always and total common sense. A fun game I like is ‘guess the excuse’ when targets / SLA’s are not met and various justifications as to why ‘things are performing badly’. Hey, rather than understand that ONE EVENT IS JUST AS LIKELY AS ANOTHER and act on the ability to meet demand and nominal value it’s easier to identify ‘special causes’ (the system crashed, we were short staffed, the dog ate my homework) to attribute to not meeting the SLAs.

    A long time ago I joined my organisation working in an operational, largely manual role. Everything was SLA driven and everyone stuck to the rules (including standing around chatting from 1.30 until 2 if the work was done because we didn’t start the next piece of work until 2pm!!??!!). When I was fortunate enough to reach a management position I looked in dusty old files for evidence of SLAs and guess what? They were all written by people long retired, who had never had any relation to the work (in terms of customer or provider). They all got consigned to the dustbin along with rota’s, targets, specified times of delivery and instead focused on providing the customer what they need, when they need it.

    Middle managers inevitably get involved when they see happy, high performing teams, delivering a great service and want letting in on the secret – actually they don’t, they see great results and think ‘we can improve this by imposing targets, KPI’s, rotas and CONTROL’ but that’s for another day.

    Sadly, this is a more recent anecdote – last week I was working with a team and listening to their calls. They prided themselves on meeting their ‘calls answered’ target. Of course they will meet this when they tell people to email them instead if the call will take a long time – SO AS NOT TO CLOG UP THE PHONE LINE. I wish I had a ‘bang-head-wall’ emoticon but there you go.

    Love this blog and Squire to the Giants – makes me feel quite less alone with this systemy stuff.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Cheers for that.
      I came this morning to find that IT helpdesk had closed a call from the previous day because they’d passed it on to the web team to START the actual piece of work.

      So another successful job handled and finished from IT hitting all their SLA targets and delighting the customer


  2. Claire says:

    Oh yes! Service level agreements are just brill. Like the one Torbay Council put in place for refuse collection, which not only completely failed to actually like – duh – pick up people’s rubbish, but also became hideously expensive a few years later when selling on recycling was actually earning the collectors loads of money plus the original contract. Meanwhile, austerity was in full flow but the council couldn’t touch that budget so had to make extra-massive cuts elsewhere. I also seem to remember there are some nice stats about the rise in MRSA infections in hospitals correlating with the introduction of agency cleaning staff.


  3. Pingback: There’s no such thing as… | Squire to the Giants

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