What’s Your Problem?

The problem statement

The Collins dictionary describes a problem as

‘a situation that is unsatisfactory and causes difficulties for people.’

The problem definition, or problem statement if you like, is the cornerstone of any process improvement project. The problem statement enables the team and stakeholders to understand WHY the team is addressing the problem, WHO is affected by it and the IMPLICATIONS are for the organisation and possibly its customers and suppliers. Above all, a well written problem statement emphasises the ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘difficulties’ elements from a ‘people’ point of view.

Very often I come across projects that have been based on someone’s expectation of the solution. This someone is often the department manager who just wants a solution put in quickly. An example of a poorly written problem statement is the following:

“We need a new application that will enable us to run the annual customer survey more efficiently. ”

Some issues with the above problem statement include

  • It focuses on the technical aspect of the problem, rather than the difficulties being experienced by people using the process;
  • It immediately directs the team towards looking for a system solution, rather than gaining a true understanding the difficulties in the process and their causes, and
  • It references efficiency rather than effectiveness. There is not much point in running a bad process efficiently.

A better problem statement would be:

“The annual customer survey takes 4 months elapsed time to complete, uses about 2,000 personnel hours, and about half the results are out-of-date and cannot be actioned by the time we get a chance to analyse them. The current process involves wasted time and effort, and results in disappointed customers and a frustrated customer service team.”

The above problem statement leads us to ask open questions such as:

  • Why are we doing a customer survey?
  • Who are our customers?
  • How do we communicate with them during the survey and why?
  • Is there a better way?

In this particular case, the annual survey was an institutionalised dinosaur of an approach, that took a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to surveying customers. During the Define and Measure phases, the green belt project team discovered that there were 5 distinct categories of customers. One category alone accounted for 75% of the company’s revenue.

Corresponding SMART goals

Thus, the team were enabled to establish project goals that spoke to the problem statement as follows:

  • Reduce the number of customer categories addressed in the annual customer survey from five (100% of revenue) to one (75% of revenue) by 30th March 2020.
  • Increase the number of key customer issues dealt with within 3 months from zero to 3, by 30th March 2020.
  • Reduce the time spent on administering the annual customer survey from an average of 2,000 personnel hours to 500 hours, by 30th March 2020.

Note that the goals specifically call out a process performance metric, the current state, the planned future state, and the deadline date i.e. a measurable focused target.

As a follow-up project the team developed an online feedback portal for the remaining customer categories (25% of revenue) inviting them to provide feedback on an ongoing basis.

Summary guidelines for writing an effective problem statement

When composing the problem statement, examine the following issues (in order of priority) to assess if they are features of the current process performance.

  • Safety – employees, customers and suppliers
  • Compliance – risk of lost revenue, penalties, discontinuation of service
  • Customer satisfaction – do you know?
  • The 7 wastes
    • Transport
    • Inventory
    • Motion
    • Waiting
    • Overproduction
    • Over processing
    • Defects
  • The 8th waste – underutilisation of human creativity.

It can take time to craft a proper problem statement for your project, as the true problem may not be immediately obvious. A gemba walk, to the actual place of the work, and review with the people working in the process, will prove invaluable and time well spent.