Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Decoding Service Levels: Rethinking SLO, SLE, SLA, and SLM

Language creates reality, and when in comes to the delivery capabilities of organization the language around service levels sometimes makes it hard to improve the reality.

The SLA (Service Level Agreement) has become a very loose Term.

Photo by Sora Shimazaki:

Non-sensical sentences like “I expect an SLA of less than two weeks!” for example (when used to underline the fact that the customer wants their delivery within two weeks or less) are way too common and make it hard(er) to discuss capabilities in a helpful manner. At least when we take SLA to mean Service Level Agreement.

A lead time distribution diagram built with post its

Right now, early 2023, not only the SLA, but also the SLE is quite popular - the Service Level Expectation. But again – this term can easily be misused and its definition depends quite a lot on context. This term has recently been taken up by people working with Scrum and Kanban and they definitely have their own interpretation.

Sometimes it is helpful to look at the original meanings of terms and try to use them in a way that is most helpful to the situations at hand.

Back to original meanings

Let’s look at what the terms actually (used to) mean and how they could all fit nicely together:

SLO - Service Level Offering

The speed and quality of service that is offered by someone (a person, a team, or an organization) to someone else.

SLE - Service Level Expectation

This term was commonly used mainly in RFPs (Request For Proposals) and in the context of contracts and offerings and describes which level of service would be expected from someone who bids on this RFP. E.g. “If you want to be our supplier for headlights, than we expect that we will have any headlight we order within 48 hours as long as we don’t order more than 200 pieces.” Today’s interpretation sometimes differs, as can be seen by numerous articles around SLEs and Kanban and Scrum

SLA - Service Level Agreement

This is the actual, mutual agreement between two parties that has been reached after discussing

  • the needs and hopes of the client (the SLE in the original sense of the word) and
  • the capabilities of the provider (the SLO)

Most of the time an SLA that has really been negotiated also takes into consideration what each party considers to be a fair and economically viable compensation for that level of service.

SLM - Service Level Measurement / Monitoring

To make sure that everything still works as the parties involved intended it is a good idea to measure the actual service level to be able to make adjustments as needed.

Why can this be helpful?

Once we return to aknowledging the different needs of the different parties involved, it becomes much easier to arrive at the most important letter of this whole three-letter-acronym (TLA) zoo: the A as in agreement!

When the SLO is left in the hands of the people providing the service they can measure their own capabilities and actually know what they can offer.

When it is clear, that the expectation that the outside world has, can not be defined from within the party providing the service, but only from the outside, then the actual clients can (and have to) define what they need.

And if all parties concerned know what they can do and what they need they will have a much time coming to an agreement.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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