Einstein is quoted as having said that if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.
This quote illustrates an important point: before jumping right into solving a problem, we should step back and invest time and effort to improve our understanding of it.
The problem statement is a clear and concise statement that describes the symptoms of the problem to be addressed. Defining the problem statement provides three benefits for the team:
creates a sense of ownership for the team
focuses the team on an accepted problem
describes the symptoms in measurable terms
The following four guidelines are effective in creating a problem statement that is clear and concise:
Define the problem - In the problem statement, team members define the problem in specific terms. They present facts such as the product type and the error made.
Identify where the problem is appearing - Identifying where the problem is appearing, or manifesting, as specifically as possible helps the team focus its improvement efforts.
Describe the size of the problem - The size of the problem is described in measurable terms.
Describe the impact the problem is having on the organization - The description of the problem's impact on the organization should be as specific as possible.
The truth of the matter is that the more specific the statement, the better the chance the team has of solving the problem. An inadequate problem statement can lead the team down a dead-end path. When defining the problem statement try to avoid these four common pitfalls:
The problem statement should not address more than one problem.
The problem statement should not assign a cause.
The problem statement should not assign blame.
The problem statement should not offer a solution.
A simple and effective method of defining a problem is a series of questions using the five W’s and one H approach (5W1H: who, what, where, when, why, how).
Who - Who does the problem affect? Specific groups, organizations, customers, etc.
What - What are the boundaries of the problem, e.g. organizational, work flow, geographic, customer, segments, etc. - What is the issue? - What is the impact of the issue? - What impact is the issue causing? - What will happen when it is fixed? - What would happen if we didn’t solve the problem?
When - When does the issue occur? - When does it need to be fixed?
Where - Where is the issue occurring? Only in certain locations, processes, products, etc.
Why - Why is it important that we fix the problem? - What impact does it have on the business or customer? - What impact does it have on all stakeholders, e.g. employees, suppliers, customers, shareholders, etc.
How - How many parts are involved? How are you going to solve the problem? Using what method or techniques?
Each of these answers will help to zero in on the specific issue(s) and define the problem statement. Your problem statement should be solvable. That is, it should take a reasonable amount of time to formulate, try and deploy a potential solution.
A well-stated problem statement speeds a robust corrective action process. It helps identify potential root causes and eliminate bias and noise. Accurate problem statements save time and effort by focusing the team on root cause identification. Continuous improvement happens when root causes are found and permanently eliminated. Defining the problem statement is the first step in this process.