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Monday, December 10, 2012

Defining Problems SMART-ly

Accurate problem statements save time and effort by focusing the team on root cause identification. A well-stated problem statement is a clear and concise statement that describes the symptoms of the problem to be addressed. It speeds a robust corrective action process by identifying potential root causes and eliminating bias and noise.

Unfortunately, many don’t take the time to accurately define the problem. Here are three common errors in defining a problem:

1. Stating a solution in the problem statement
Bad – We need a new furnace because it doesn’t stay warm.
Good – The temperature is 20 degrees below specification.

2. Too large of a problem
Bad – The quoting process takes too long.
Good – The spare part quoting process takes 5 business days.

3. Vague problem statements
Bad – Customers don’t like the product.
Good – Customers returns of product X are 35%.

Consider the check engine light in your vehicle. It gives you a warning that there is a problem but it is poor at defining the problem. The light can come on for a number of problems. This doesn’t help you solve the problem and usually means you have to bring it in to a repair shop.

The truth of the matter is that the more specific the statement, the better the chance the team has of solving the problem. Accurate problem statements save time and effort when they contain all these elements:

  • Keep it brief
  • Avoid technical language
  • Quantify the problem – Don’t solve it!
  • Explain the costs
  • Define the scope
  • State the consequences/benefits of possible solutions 
 A simple and effective method of defining a problem and one you can easily remember is to use SMART problem definitions:

Specific – Identifies key issue and process being worked on
Measurable – You have established metrics identifying targets
Avoids solutions – Problem statements contain only an explanation of the problem
Really concise – Contains a one-sentence summary of the issue facing the team
Time-based – Focuses on a specific time period when the problem was identified

Einstein was quoted as having said that “if I had one hour to save the world I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” This quote illustrates the importance that before jumping right into solving a problem, we should step back and invest time and effort to improve our understanding of the problem. The first step is to define the problem and we should do so SMART-ly.

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