Writing Effective Problem Statements
A problem often presents itself in terms of symptoms, blame, causes, and solutions. What is vital is having the ability to sift through all of this "noise" and get to the heart of the matter… the "Real Problem" that needs to be solved. In the world of continuous improvement, the starting point for every project or event has to begin with a complete, accurate and concise description of the problem that is being addressed.
The problem statement;
should describe an undesirable gap between the current level of performance and the desired level of performance
includes an absolute or relative measure of the problem - gap must be quantifiable, (a "number")
should not include the cause or any solutions
The Elements of a Problem Statement
Gap: Focuses on the observable “Gap” or “pain” and not the causes of solutions.
Time frame, location and trend: Describes when and where the problem was first observed and what kind of trend is it following.
Impact: Quantifies the gap in terms of cost, time spent, efficiency, market share, volume
Importance: Answers the question “why should the organization allocate resources for this project and not another one?”
Writing Problem Statements: 5W2H
The 5W2H model provides a simple and effective framework for writing a good problem statement.
Let’s start with the W’s first… There are five of them!
What is the problem?
Why is it a problem? (Highlight the “pain”)
Where do we observe the problem? (location, products, services, etc.)
Who is impacted? (customers, businesses, functions)
When did we first observe the problem?
With the five W’s answered, we now turn our attention to the two H’s…
How did we observe the problem? (symptoms, evidence)
How often do we observe the problem? Error rate? (Magnitude and trend)
Let’s consider a customer service example…
Technical Call Centre ‐ Inbound & Outbound Call Handling
1. What is the problem?
The assessment call is too complex, time consuming and administratively heavy resulting in a diminished experience for the client as well as the assessment worker conducting the assessment.
2. Why is it a problem? (Highlight the “pain”)
This results in higher variability and length of call handling time, clients having to repeat their "story" as the move through the assessment and downstream case worker (meeting) process, client's providing more information than may be required, increased workload for the assessment worker, and increased wait times in the (telephone) queue. The overall impact is reduced service levels and diminished client and assessment worker experience.
3. Where do we observe the problem? (location, products, services, etc.)
This problem is observed in all assessment calls but will vary in magnitude depending on the client (needs and circumstance), assessment worker (experience), and other factors that contribute to variation in the handling of assessment calls.
4. Who is impacted? (customers, businesses, functions)
This affects the client associated with the call, clients waiting in the queue, client's families, the XXX, and employers.
5. When did we first observe the problem?
This is a latent issue that has always existed but has become more evident with recent changes, including changes in funding, legislation, demand for services, client demographics, and recent integration efforts at the XXX as part of their ongoing commitment to continuous improvement and enhancing the client/customer experience.
1. How did we observe the problem? (symptoms, evidence)
This problem is observed in the variation in call handling times (7-30 minutes), excessive wait times in the telephone queue (up to 90 minutes), call abandon rates (3% - 50+%), increased stress in front‐line staff (workload and client anxiety/dissatisfaction) and ambiguity in call handling protocols.
2. How often do we observe the problem? Error rate? (Magnitude and trend)
This is a daily operational occurrence but recent increases in call complexity as a result of changes in the knowledge base, multiple programs, changes in the environment (client demographics and needs/circumstances, legislation, etc.) has placed additional demand on the system and call centre resources.
Employing the 5W2H described in this article can result in a better definition of a problem prior to constructing a comprehensive process improvement project charter and moving forward with a process improvement project.
Knowing how to write an effective problem statement is not merely a business skill… It is a life skill.