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All about Effective Problem Statement

Jul 1, 2022

Learning Six Sigma and achieving different belts is truly a daunting journey. But every journey begins with a problem or an aim. Writing a problem statement is just like that, you need to be elaborate, relevant, and completely address the issue you will be working on.

Let’s first understand the need and importance of having an effective problem statement. As the name suggests, a problem statement defines the gap that you want to address. It recognizes that there is a void between certain situations and current performances.

Before we go further, let us understand the roadmap for Six Sigma. The DMAIC model, one of the tools of Six Sigma methodology, enables you to improve the quality of results and the company’s processes. DMAIC stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control, so whether you use this building block for project management or as a standalone quality improvement measure, the ‘Define Phase’ revolves around a concise yet detailed problem statement.

“[A user] needs [need] in order to accomplish [goal].” <define what it is>

With this basic formula, you can add information and arguments in favor of solving your problem.

Peter Peterka, a Six Sigma Master Black Belt, emphasizes the importance of facts and research within your problem statement. He focuses on, “Your problem statement can be very clear and simple, starting out as one or two sentences, but will be backed with data, research, and insights into the problem.”

The DMAIC Model

Before going further, let’s understand the DMAIC model in Six Sigma. This will work as a map to address the issue, right down to improving and eliminating it. In turn, enabling you to understand the importance of having an effective problem statement, and how it affects the entire process.

  • Define phase

The purpose of the Define phase is to describe the problem and elaborate on how and how much it affects the organization or business. Define the customer, their issues with CTQ (Critical to Quality), and the core business process involved in the issue.

Also talk about customers’ requirements, expectations, and reality. Discover the boundaries, what is feasible and what is not. This will help you map the process, for further improvements, and precisely map the process flow.

  • Measure phase

The next phase is to measure the performance of the Core Business processes involved in the issue you’re addressing. This phase also includes the data collection plan, for this, you need to measure the performance of the Core Business Process involved. Develop a data collection plan for the process, collect relevant and up-to-date data from varied sources, then determine defects and metrics. This will help you understand the shortfall and present a clear picture of the problem.

  • Analyze phase

Then comes analyzing the data, following your process map to find out the root causes of defects and discover opportunities to improve performance. This phase also helps you to identify the gap between the current level of performance and Identify gaps between current performance and desired performance. This phase also enables you to prioritize opportunities, and also find sources of errors or variation.

  • Improve phase

The next phase deals with improving the target process. This is accomplished by designing creative solutions to fix the issue and also preventing problems that may arise due to it. This phase demands innovation and creativity, discipline, and leveraging technology to design, develop, and deploy the strategy or plan.

  • Control phase

The job is not over yet as you have to take control of the implementations made by the Improve phase. You have to make sure that the new process runs smoothly, and does not revert to the ‘old way’. In this phase, you monitor the improvements and establish the system via modifying systems, structures, etc. Also, developing documentation, guidelines, etc. to make sure that the control remains and the process does not ward off its desired route.

How to start writing an effective problem statement?

When writing a problem statement, one of the best strategies to use is 5W2H (What? Why? Where? When? Who? How? How Much?). This method allows you to ask the right questions, in cascading order, leading you to create a foolproof problem statement.

The 5W2H tool establishes a clear and direct guideline for addressing a problem or a process. This tool gives the writer a clear set of rules to adhere to while making a problem statement effective. This tool enables you to have a guided route to tackling the problem, and provide a crisp explanation of the problem you’re addressing.

Also, before starting to write your problem, find all the relevant data about it. This will make it easier for you to understand the trend, and spot a pattern if there is any. The next thing to keep in mind is readability and presentation.

As it is said, your first impression might be your last. Let the problem sink in first, don’t jump onto writing it down. It’s always recommended to keep pointers, which will guide you to write effectively, addressing all the issues in a simplified and organized manner.

Tools & Techniques to use when writing an effective problem statement?

Every team develops its own processes to create effective problem statements. The process is very flexible. You can arrange it according to your liking and your business methodology. But there’s one methodology that stands out the most — The 5 Whys.

What are the 5 whys?

The 5 Whys is one of the most effective techniques for Root Cause Analysis (learn more about RCA in our previous blog). Every team which faces hurdles in their task can utilize the 5 Whys approach to find the root cause of any problem and protect the process from recurring mistakes and failures.

How to Complete a Five Whys Root Cause Analysis?

  1. Begin with a specific problem. Find the issue you are facing. This will resolve your team to pinpoint the common root cause problem.
  2. Ask why the problem happened and write the solution down to the specific problem you listed.
  3. Keep asking WHY? to each of the succeeding problems and to its answers until you reach the root cause of the problem.
  4. Make sure the team manages to resolve all the Whys? To the problems and their solutions. This may take some time due to the detailed filtration of the entire flow.

The Five Whys Tools

The easiest approach to conduct the 5 Whys is to simply write down on a piece of paper. However, for a bigger project, you may require something more than a piece of paper. The Fishbone or the Ishikawa diagram can help during the initial process of identifying the problems. Learn more about the Ishikawa diagram in one of our many Six Sigma-related blogs. Gather all of the root-cause relationships and assess which of them had a greater impact on the original problem.

Few more important points to consider:

  • You have to make sure that your statement addresses one issue. Yes, you can write multiple issues, but make it easier for the reader, and break them into different statements. As you delve deeper into the problem, you’ll find many links to other problematic areas. But the whole point is to focus on one issue, then move on to the next. Because Rome wasn’t built in a day!
  • As you find other problems in the underlying areas of your core issues, you should avoid blaming any particular team/process. Blaming someone else is equivalent to giving up on the problem yourself. This would also make you look like you’re being overwhelmed and narrow-minded about finding root causes, etc.
  • The most important point to note is to make sure that you don’t address any solutions to the gap you’re stating. As the problem statement just urges the management to take urgent actions, the problem might be even bigger or something else entirely.

The problem statement just states facts, trends, patterns, data, etc. about the underlying cause, it is a message to push management for further action and investigation. So, make sure you keep it to that and check all the boxes.

What makes a problem statement effective?

We often wonder, why does it need to be effective when it’s going to solve a major issue and benefit the organization anyway?

Well, addressing your issue to the management is not your sole purpose. You need to make it clear for every person involved in the process. The golden rule to follow is if an unbiased individual can clearly understand and get your problem statement. It is effective!

The Define phase of DMAIC takes extra precedence over other phases. Because not everyone looks at or understands the problem in the same way you do. The best you can do to get everyone on the same page is to create a lucid and descriptive statement. That talks to the point, covering all open-ended threads, which can raise conflicts or questions.

Now we have understood the need and importance of a problem statement. Let’s focus on the next part which curtails around making your problem statement effective.

An effective problem statement should include:

  • A clear understanding of the process issues
  • The improvement goals
  • The actions that are going to be taken for change

To include all this, you can:

  • Have a thorough conversation with your top management, ask for inputs, and other possible revenue leaks or overhead costs.
  • You can map level Y (which is the Key Business Outcome). Y will often be referred to in the Six Sigma DMAIC approach and it is called KPOV (Key Process Output variable).
  • One thing to keep in mind is drafting a SMART problem statement. SMART stands for Smart, Measurable, Actual, and Time-Bound. This will all be clarified in the examples given in the next and give you an idea about how to write an effective problem statement.

To get a deeper understanding and get into the writing part of the Define phase, Project Charter becomes a useful tool. Consider it as a pitch, which includes all the information, and enables you to create an effective problem statement.

A Project Charter includes:

  • Background and Purpose: a crisp and clear description of the issue, how it is affecting the business along, its importance, issues with the current process, reasons stated for the project.
  • Mission Statement: A concise statement of the purpose of the project and goals expected to achieve as well as the direction of action planned.
  • Scope: This should include but not limited to:
  1.  Boundaries & limitations
  2. Expect Project goals
  3. Timeline of steps
  4. Deliverables of the said project when completed
  5. Detailed cost estimates of project
  6. Organizational interfaces, departments, or groups affected by said project
  7. The urgency of the project
  • Team Involved and Roles: List of members and areas of expertise, including external stakeholders, everyone on the project, and teams that should be included.
  • Operational Framework: This should include locations, accountability, the decision-making process that is protocol, and what methods are to be used for conflict resolution.
  • Performance Measures: Measure for team performance, deadlines, process efficiency measures, outcome measures, or goals achieved for the project.
  • Support Requirements: Any outside support needed such as consultants, outside systems, or even vendors

Using the Project Charter enables you to achieve a clear, detailed, and effective problem statement. This also allows you to clearly state the Define phase, and create a problem statement that is lucid yet exhaustive in its context and depth.


The organization has been producing a lot of defective items.

The statement above does not provide readers with any information about the organization. It just states a major problem with no particular process in vision. Also, it does not talk about the cost incurred by the organization. The gravity of the situation and if any urgent measures are required. And what about Customer Satisfaction?

As long as a problem does not benefit the customers, why would an organization make these changes?

Now let us take the same statement, and turn it into an effective problem statement.

In Ex Machines Ltd., the rate of defective products (remote sets for TVs) has increased by 45% over the past 5 months. The loss resulting due to the defective products is $25,000 combined over the past 5 months. This is affecting the supply chain, and also tarnishing the company’s reputation with the customers.

This statement tells the problem and is also concise, talks about the duration, and also the revenue in numbers (avoid approximated figures and random figures). The management can get a clear and defined problem, understand its urgency, and what benefits come from it. If there is a customer experience or satisfaction added, make sure you mention it. With this, you can also see how 5W2H works, along with SMART.

  • Let’s take another example

The hospital is losing money on beds, due to delayed time in response and other aspects.

What this statement should be like:

In ABC hospitals, there are fewer beds and poor bed management for patients. Measured over the past 8 months, year to year, the loss incurred and insurance premiums due to casualties is $500,000. This has impacted the hospital’s credentials and ramped up the insurance premiums.


This is all there is to know about writing an effective problem statement. You should always keep in mind that every solution begins with a problem, and your solution is as good as the problem you state.

An effective problem statement will take your project a long way ahead, and give your project the desired level of attention and importance.

Original Article:

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