Problem Statements

Purpose

A Problem is simply any condition that deviates negatively from the desired state (in our case, usually a meaningful Customer requirement that is not being met). Before you can work toward solving any problem, you must first define or describe it.

Application

When we work as a service quality improvement team, we want to solve problems by getting to root causes. After we have identified the root cause(s) of the problem, we take steps to eliminate it/them and to prevent them from recurring. The first step, then, is to accurately, specifically define the Problem.

Therefore, a Problem Statement is a clear, specific statement of an undesirable situation or condition. Use the following guidelines to create an effective problem statement.

  • 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 Customers and/or the organization — The description of the problem’s impact on the organization should be as specific as possible.

The more specific the statement, the better the chance your team has of fixing the problem.

Hints and Cautions

  • Be careful not to frame your Problem in terms of a solution or a cause.
  • 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.

You’ll have a good Problem Statement when:

1.  It identifies a single problem. Your Team will generally create a list of several problems which might be targets of your improvement efforts. To eliminate problems, you must focus on one at a time. Once you’re well underway with one problem, you can take up another. In this way, you’ll effectively solve each problem you attack. Over a period of time, you’ll be able to deal with many problems – and keep your improvement activities focused and in control.

2.  The problem is worth working on. What is worthwhile depends on the needs of your Customers, your organization, and your Team. For example, a project might be considered worthwhile if it ensures quality for the Customer, eliminates hassles in your work, or saves money or time for the organization.

3.  The problem is appropriate for your Team. Even if a problem is worth working on, you must also consider whether your Team is an appropriate group to handle it. Do you have the interest, the knowledge, and the position in the organization to take a major role in solving it? If not, the problem can be referred to another team or individual who can better deal with it.  Perhaps the problem needs a cross functional team created just to solve it.

4.  The Team understands the problem and is motivated to address it. It is important that everyone on the Team be willing to pitch in and support the work. That’s one reason problem selection should be given adequate time for discussion among the Team.

When you finish, you should have one output:  A written statement of the problem.

The written Problem Statement should include a description of

(1)  the current problem situation (the deviation from ideal or “norm”);

(2)  its impact (on Customers, on the Organization, on the Team);

(3)  the desired state of affairs (goal or intended outcome);and optionally,

(4)  the expected impact of correcting or eliminating the problem.

Example

Ten percent of the new system updates that we applied last month had to be backed out. This has caused an 18% increase in service desk issues.