Monday, July 13, 2015

Problem Solving Starts With Defining The Problem


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 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

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


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.

Another 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.

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.


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 focus the team on the root cause of the problem. Only once the root cause is found can continuous improvement permanently eliminate it. Defining the problem statement is the first step in this process.

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