What is the Problem We’re Trying to Solve?

Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

For anyone thinking about process improvement, this is great advice. But it often goes unheeded.

In our eagerness to solve a problem, we tend to spend too little time up front to grasp the situation and express it well in a problem statement. A problem is the gap between what you expect and what actually happens now. A problem statement is a clear and concise statement that describes the gap.

The problem statement is important because it determines the focus of the improvement effort. A poor problem statement can put you on the wrong path and waste valuable time and energy. Before starting down a path, make sure you are going to the right place!

Problem statements are a simple concept, but they are difficult to write well. A problem statement should not:

  1. Address more than one problem
  2. Assign a cause
  3. Assign blame
  4. Contain the solution

Let’s look at two fictional examples of a problem statement from a neighborhood coffee shop:

Bad

Good

Problem statement: We need to decide which new espresso machine to buy because it takes too long to make lattes.

Analysis: This statement fails on a few levels. The symptom “too long” is not specific and is open to interpretation. The problem statement also assigns a cause and pre-ordains a solution.

Problem statement: In our flagship store, baristas are taking three minutes to produce a latte. Our target is 90 seconds.

Analysis: The more specific the statement, the better the chance the team has of solving the problem. This problem statement describes measurable results and target.

Here are some tips for writing a good problem statement:

  1. Start by describing the problem in a paragraph or two. This is a way to get your thoughts down on paper so do not worry about how well it is written.
  2. In a single phrase, write your target condition – what results you are expecting. In a single phrase, write the actual condition. Use facts, not assumptions.
  3. Write down any details to specify when and where the symptoms are occurring.
  4. Write a first draft of the problem statement using your target vs. actual phrases. Make it as specific as possible.
  5. Refine any language that is not clear or that can have different meaning to different people.
  6. Review any words or phrases that deal with amounts or time frames. These must be measureable and not open to interpretation.
  7. Keep it short! Is the problem statement less than 25 words? If not, edit out any extra words that are not absolutely necessary.

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