Business Center

How to Craft a Problem Statement

If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes on the solution – Unknown (often attributed to Albert Einstein)

By Gary Vansuch, Director of Process Improvement 

February 25, 2021

Overview

Crafting a good problem is a key part of starting an effective improvement or innovation project,and is the first step in chartering a project. An effective problem statement is:

  •  short (two to three sentences at most) and 
  • focused on a single problem only. It should concisely describe and quantify the unsatisfactory condition – consider using charts to illustrate the issue. 

When crafting the problem statement, consider addressing the four Ws (who, what, where, when) – don’t worry about “Why” now, that work is part of root cause analysis. Problem statements should focus on the current state and recent trends. 

Finally, the problem statement should never suggest a solution or attribute blame.

Step 1. First Draft of the Problem Statement

In one or two sentences (three maximum) describe the problem or issue that you want to tackle. Don’t be overly concerned about the wording at this point – just try to ensure that the problematic situation is clearly understood.

Step 2. Consider the four Ws

Review the first draft of the problem statement and apply the four Ws:

  • Who is impacted by the problem?
  • What is the precise negative outcome or condition?
  • When did the situation first occur and is it getting worse or better?
  • Where is the problem occurring?

Prepare a revised problem statement that incorporates this information.

Step 3. Quantify the Problem Statement

Where possible, provide data that supports the problem statement, shows the magnitude of the problem or negative outcome(s) and/or provide a data trend to suggest if the problem is getting better, staying the same or getting worse.

Revise the problem statement from Step 2 to incorporate the data that describes the magnitude of the problem and/or recent trends.

Step 4. Finalize the problem statement

Take your draft of the problem statement and incorporate the data that you have collected. Now ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the problem too big (needs to be broken down into smaller problems)?
  • Is a solution suggested in the problem statement (just state the problem, solutions come later)?
  • Is the problem statement precise 
  • Is the problem statement impactful?

Examples

Here are some examples of a single situation, but with different problem statements to describe that situation, along with a quick analysis of the effectiveness of each of the problem statements.

Problem Statement 

Analysis

Score

Calls to our virtual CDOT Customer Service Center have gone up due to confusion over a new process, and we require temporary staff to deal with the backlog.

  • Too Imprecise – By how much? Over what time period?
  • Don’t suggest a root cause
  • Don’t suggest a solution
  • What is the impact and who is the impacted

1/10

Client calls to the CDOT Customer Service Center  are significantly higher than normal,and average wait times are more than 5 minutes.

  • Too imprecise – By how much? Over what time period?
  • What is the impact and who is the impacted?
  • “average”: mean, median, mode?

4/10

Client calls to the CDOT Customer Service Center have increased 30 percent over normal volumes and mean wait times are now more than 5 minutes. 

  • No indication of how quickly the calls have increased
  • Confusion on “30 percent”: is this month-over-month, year-over-year or is the author confusing percent with percentage points?

6/10

Calls  to the CDOT Customer Service Center rose sharply in August and are now averaging 30 percentage points higher than normal volumes and mean wait times are now more than 5 minutes.

  • Graph to illustrate the increase would be useful

8/10

Calls to the CDOT Customer Service Center rose sharply in August and are now averaging 30 percentage points higher than normal volumes, and mean wait times are now more than 5 minutes

Not bad!

9/10