Many of us are faced with the challenge of solving problems on a daily basis.
The good news is that there’s a vast range of problem solving tools and techniques available to help do this.
However, if you’re going to be successful, one of the principal activities you’ll be required to get to grips with is building an effective problem statement.
In this article, we’ll be explaining how to write a problem statement.
In this post we’ll cover:
- What is a problem statement
- How to write a problem statement
- The importance of a problem statement
- How can I write a great Problem Statement
- When should you write a Problem Statement
- Example Problem Statement
- Top 5 Tips on writing problem statements
- Issues to watch out for
A problem statement should offer a clear and concise summary of the condition to be improved and focus on facts and data (rather than supposition or guesswork).
A problem statement describes an observed unacceptable gap, highlighting specific issues between the desired level of performance and the current performance level.
A well-defined statement is essential in understanding the problem and in helping inform action and in finding a solution.
A problem statement:
- Describes the current state: i.e., “The Goods inwards team fail to identify 40% of nonconformities within parts delivered by suppliers.”
- Describes the ‘should be’ state, i.e., “The Goods Inwards team should identify over 95% of non-conformities.”
- Explains why the problem matters. ” A failure to identify nonconformities at goods inwards results in higher production costs and production delays.”
A problem statement is constructed using various pieces of information:
- The subject of the problem
- The timeframe that the problem is set in
- The Gap between what is required and current performance
- The impact
- The priority
The table below shows those parts and provides an example of how a problem statement could be built utilizing those elements.
|Subject||The subject Matter for the Problem||Supplier delivery performance|
|Timeframe||The timeframe under review||Supplier delivery performance within the last 6 months|
|The Gap||What should it be, What is it?||Supplier delivery performance, within the last 6 months, has achieved 20% on time, which is below it’s target of 80%|
|The Impact||What is the impact of the problem||Supplier delivery performance, within the last 6 months, has achieved 20% on time, which is below it’s target of 80%. This has increased production costs in our London Facility by $300,000.|
|The Priority||Set a priority around the problem||Supplier delivery performance, within the last 6 months, has achieved 20% on time, which is below it’s target of 80%. This has increased production costs in our London Facility by $300,000. This will increase to $400,000 within the next 3 months if improvements are not realised|
Without a problem statement, you are faced with four issues:
1/ You are unlikely to be able to quantify the extent of the problem.
2/ You are unable to understand its context or importance.
3/ You will find difficulty in gaining support for its resolution as you will lack a mechanism to communicate it
4/ You are likely to be hampered in reaching its root cause and therefore solving the issue.
Let’s take a look at an example and justify why a problem statement is important:
Statement a) I feel a little warm and unwell
Statement b) My temperature has risen to 40 degrees today, instead of 37.5 and I am showing signs of hypothermia
Which do you think provides more clarity and would help in finding a solution?
There are a few aspects that you can focus on if you’re looking to write great problem statements. I like to utilize the SMART acronym as a reminder for what I should be incorporating – see below:
- Be Specific – Avoid generalizations, the statement should be concise and allow the reader to focus on the specific problem to be addressed and not “guess” at what you’re trying to describe.
- Be Measurable – Without data, the problem is meaningless. ‘The gap’ in the problem is crucial,it provides the context of where you are against where you should be.
- Be Attainable – it is of no use describing a problem that has a performance gap where the required state is not attainable. For example, if my problem statement was “In the last week I have run a mile in 7 minutes not my target of 3 seconds” then while correctly articulating the problem, you are unlikely to be able to bring about change.
- Be Relevant – do not include information that is of no relevance to the problem or those trying to solve it. For example, “Yesterday, when I lost my umbrella, I only achieved 50 sales against a target of 100”. Clearly, the umbrella is unlikely to be linked to sales, and its inclusion in the statement is superfluous.
- Be Timebound – Utilize timeframes in your problem statements. They provide context and information that will help the individual or team looking to solve the problem.
Here are five examples of problem statements. You can see how we’ve used the principles of subject, timeframe, gap, impact & priority to aide their construction.
1/ During 2009, in Ohudu, 15% of children showed signs of malnutrition, against a continent average of 8.5% leading to a 2.3% rise in mortality below the age of 16.
2/ Over the last 24 months, supplier delivery performance was 59% against a target of 85% leading to a rise in production costs of 10%. This increased the % of production costs within the overall product to 70%.
3/ Fishermen in the UK in 2019 reported a drop in lobster catches of 15% on the previous year. This has resulted in both higher prices and unemployment for some fishermen.
4/ Customer boarding times at ZYA airport have increased by 25% from the previous 18 months leading to a reduction in customer satisfaction levels from 70-55% in the last quarter.
You should look to write a problem statement before you embark on any problem-solving or improvement activity.
While this might seem obvious, you’d be surprised how many businesses embark on trying to hunt for a solution to a problem they haven’t fully understood.
By acting without a reasonable problem statement, you are likely to use resources, time, and cost that can be wasted chasing in one direction when you should be going in the other.
Remember, you are far more likely to resolve your issue by utilizing a problem statement ahead of any problem-solving.
The diagram below shows the typical timeline when a problem statement is utilized.
1/ Practice makes perfect
Practice writing problem statements and then sharing them with colleagues. Request feedback, what worked well, what didn’t?
2/ Consider using the four W’s
Utilize Who, What, Where, When and Why to help prompt input into your statement
3/ Build your statement using the subject, timeframe, gap, impact & priority
Using a set of ‘ingredients’ to help build a statement in sequence ensures that you don’t forget anything important.
What is your vision of what things will be like when the problem is solved? How can you utilize that within your statement?
5/ Incorporate Feedback
Share your problem statement with colleagues and incorporate feedback that aides clarity.
1/ Are you solving the right problem
In one of the examples above, we described a problem in which late deliveries from suppliers were attributed to increased production costs. What happens if that link is incorrect and the late deliveries had nothing to do with the production costs? Take time to ensure that your problem is the right one!
Using effective tools and techniques (including experiments) to ensure you’re looking at the right problem can be an essential step to ensure that you are not wasting effort.
2/ Is your problem statement ambiguous?
If it’s not easily understood, people in your team may not readily understand the nature of the issue or what the target is when solving it?
3/ Are you overemphasizing the importance of the problem
People can become attached to issues; for them, it is the number one problem on the face of the earth. However, it is important that you contextualize your issue and that you’re sensible when setting out the impact
4/ Are you forgetting about the people who will read it?
Remember that your problem statement is likely to be used as part of a problem-solving activity. Avoid using bespoke terms or information others may find difficult to understand. Can you frame your problem another way? Perhaps share it with a colleague first and ask for feedback. Remember, simple wins every time!
We hope you enjoyed this article on writing problem statements. They are an essential tool in business, and if you can master them, then they can be of great use.
If your using problem statements and have some tips to share with our readers,or if you have any further questions on how to write them, we’d love to hear from you. You can send us a message on twitter or use the comments section below.
This article is part of our Problem Solving Guide.