How to Write an Effective Problem Statement

How to Write an Effective Problem Statement

How to Write an Effective Problem Statement

A problem statement describes a problem, issue or area of concern that is causing difficulties within the business objectively and thoroughly.

It is not written with an agenda or opinion in mind and does not offer solutions.

It is a method of communicating the extent of a problem to anyone involved in the improvement process.

The problem statement should be created at the beginning of any improvement investigation; however, it will require a level of initial research to create.

Getting the problem statement right is key to carrying out an effective improvement investigation.

Beyond sharing the problem statement with the team who will be involved, it could be helpful for those who are affected by the problem to be made aware.

What Should an Effective Problem Statement Include?

A problem statement must include several key pieces of information to provide an effective basis for an improvement process.

The Ideal Situation

Ideally, how should things work? This might be:

  • Number of sales and level of turnover
  • Units produced
  • Bookings taken
  • Level of staff turnover
  • Number of accidents in the workplace
  • Manufacturing time
  • Material wastage or lack of it
  • The length of time from order to delivery
  • Customer satisfaction

or any other example of what the business is striving to achieve in a best-case scenario.

The Current Situation

Generally, where there is a need to create a problem statement, the current situation will differ from the ideal situation.

It is necessary to measure the gap between the ideal and the current to get from one to the other.

The Problem

What is the problem?

For example,

  • Low number of sales
  • The inability to produce sufficient units to fulfil customer orders within the promised time limit
  • High staff turnover and the loss of talented individuals
  • An increasing number of accidents in the workplace
  • High levels of customer complaints

Include who the problem affects, how often it happens and the last occurrence, the financial cost of the problem and where the problem is located and/or was observed.

Beyond what the actual problem is, an effective problem statement should also outline why this is a problem and why it must be resolved.

The Investigation

At this stage, the focus should be on investigating the problem rather than offering solutions.

How will the problem be investigated?

  • Who will be involved?
  • How long will the investigation take?
  • What methods will be used?
  • How will the results be used?

To learn more about different improvement methods, read about how to create a culture of continuous improvement.

How to Write an Effective Problem Statement

An effective problem statement is well-structured and takes full advantage of bullet-points and sub-headings.

It is clearly worded, objective and concise. It offers context and quantifies factors such as time limit or cost.

There are various methods for writing a problem statement, such as:

  • 5W2H – What, when, where, why, who, how, and how much
  • The problem canvas – Using a grid divided into sections for context, problem, alternatives, customers, emotional and quantifiable impact and alternative shortcomings
  • The 5 Ws – Who, what, when, where and why

Breaking all of the above information down, here is a basic outline for writing an effective problem statement:

The Ideal Working of Your Process

State what the situation should look like. How would the process work in an ideal scenario? This must be a factual and realistic ideal.

A good example:

The process from customer order to delivery should take no more than 15 days to fulfil our delivery promise.

Adherence to this time limit would meet customer expectations and improve the likelihood of customer satisfaction.

A bad example:

In an ideal world, the time it takes for an order to reach a customer is as little as possible.

In the good example, the process is outlined (delivery), the ideal time limit is clear and the reasons for meeting this time limit provided.

The Current Situation of Your Process

In this paragraph, state the current problem situation. This paragraph should make it easy to see the gap between the ideal and the actual.

A good example:

Over the last six months, delivery of 65% of customer orders happened outside the time limit.

Of those arriving after 15 days had passed, 85% were delivered between 16 and 20 days of the customer order.

The remaining 15% arrived after 20 days.

Bad example:

Increasingly, over half of customer orders arrive late.

The good example provides a time frame and the measured extent of the problem.

Who Is Involved in the Process?

The purpose of this paragraph is to list everyone who witnessed the process and, therefore, everyone who could potentially provide information as to why it is inefficient.

The people or departments listed in this paragraph may also form the team who investigate the problem.

Good example:

The order to delivery process involves the following departments:

  • Post
  • Order processing
  • Stock control and warehouse
  • Accounting

Bad example:

Orders are handled by the order processing department, so the root of the problem must be with them.

The good example clearly states the departments involved in each stage of the entire order to delivery process. It does not lay the blame on anyone.

How To Write an Effective Problem Statement
How To Write an Effective Problem Statement

What Is the Process?

The purpose of laying out the steps involved in the process is to clarify all the places where the problem could begin and how each stage affects what follows.

Good example:

The order to delivery process is as follows:

Order received – Postal orders are received by the post department who deliver twice a day to the order processing department. Telephone and online orders are received directly by the order processing department

Order recorded by order processing department and payment is taken – Payment for postal orders passed to the accounting department; payment for telephone orders are processed by order processing department; payment for online orders is processed through the website.

Bad example:

When the order is received, the order processing department processes the order and takes payment, then passes the order to the warehousing department that posts the order out.

Where Is the Process Going Wrong?

Just as the ‘who’ paragraph should not involve blame, this section of the problem statement should not include opinion.

The research you carried out before writing the problem statement should precisely inform where the process is going wrong.

Good example:

It is clear from the stages of the order to delivery process in each of the above departments that the volume of orders has caused a backlog in the order processing department.

There has also been a lack of stock to fulfil orders on two occasions; the volume of orders has also caused a backlog in posting out orders on at least three occasions.

Bad example:

The problem is caused by a lack of productivity and focus in the order processing department.

The good example shows that research has been conducted before creating the problem statement and flags up specific and observed areas of concern.

When Does the Flaw Happen?

Is there a specific time of day, week or year when the problem occurs?

For example, does the processing of summer orders suffer because the item is in more demand over that season and/or more staff are on holiday during the summer?

Good example:

The number of late deliveries increased in the run-up to our peak season, Christmas, and began to decrease again in late December.

Bad example:

Most of the late deliveries happened at Christmas.

Why Should It Be Fixed?

In this paragraph, explain why this is a problem for the business.

How will it impact company turnover or staff morale? What may be the long term effect if the problem is not rectified?

Good example:

The increasing number of late deliveries has resulted in a surge of customer complaints, order cancellations, refunds and bad reviews.

This has led to excess stock taking up space in our warehouse, an uncertain cash flow and more customers turning to our competitors.

Should this situation continue, it may become difficult to sustain the company.

Bad example:

More and more customers are ringing to complain that their order is late. Nobody wants to answer the phone anymore.

If the problem continues, our customers will find somewhere else to shop.

The good example highlights the consequences of the problem and how this could affect the business.

The bad example is vague and sounds more like an opinion or a moan.

How Are You/Your Team/Improvements Going to Fix It?

How will the problem be investigated? Who will be involved? Is there a time frame for the investigation?

Good example:

This investigation aims to determine which areas of the order to delivery process are inefficient and are causing the late delivery problem.

A gap analysis team drawn from relevant employees will observe the current process, interview the involved departments and ask staff members for input on how to improve the process.

Finally, the team will conclude what measures should be put in place to resolve the process problem.

Bad example:

A team will look into the problems and come up with a solution.

Top Tips for Creating an Effective Problem Statement

If you are still unsure how to begin writing your problem statement, here are our top tips:

  • You do not have to write it on your own – Including others in your research will allow you to hear from the people who know the processes involved and can see what effects the problem has caused. This is essential information for your problem statement.

  • Refrain from using jargon – Those who read the statement could include staff who understand technical or industry jargon, but others may be unfamiliar with such terms. Use plain language to make the problem statement as easy and straightforward a read.

  • Keep it objective – Rely on the facts to demonstrate the extent of the problem, rather than opinions.

  • Do not include solutions at this point – Outline the problem. Solutions will arise when the issue has been investigated.

  • Do not jump to conclusions – In the previous section, the examples laid out a problem and three pressure points. Upon investigation, these may well be the causes of the problem or could be symptoms of some other issue.

  • Do not blame anyone – Instead, state the facts from an attitude of constructive solution-seeking.

  • Outline the entire problem – It may be difficult for the investigation to find a cause unless they can see the whole picture.

  • The problem statement is a beginning, not an end – It forms the basis of an investigation; therefore, it must be factually correct and provide an extensive and clear account of the problem.

Final Thoughts

Any improvement process will rely on the problem statement that instigates it, from the information provided, to the side-effects, pressure points and what could happen if the problem is not solved.

Writing a problem statement can be relatively simple if you remember to:

  • Keep to the facts
  • Talk to the people who are involved
  • Avoid blame and opinion
  • Observe the process affected by the problem
  • Realise the importance of seeking a solution

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