A Good Problem Description Is Key

You can cause more difficulties if you don't get off to the right start

by George R. Raub III

It's 9 a.m. Thursday, and the staff is in the plant manager's office for an emergency meeting. The plant manager just received a call from sales. Your major customer reported a serious poor fit problem with your parts--automotive instrument panel trim plates--and might have to stop production. The plant manager says, "We've got a problem in production or quality, and I need it fixed now! Our biggest customer may stop production."

The quality assurance (QA) department reports the day shift runs best, and the midnight shift's reject rate is high. Production is concerned there are too many different quality standards. "Do we know anything more about the problem?" the QA manager asks. "We ship 12 versions of the product." Unfortunately, all anyone knows is the customer is reporting a serious poor fit issue.

"We shouldn't have a problem. There are no rejects for poor fit," says the QA manager. "I'm going to set up tally sheets and see how each door fits. I'll have short run capability results tomorrow."

"The problem is with our new employees," says someone from HR. "We brought them in without training them when ramp-up started."

The plant manager agrees, and the QA department decides to reinspect all stock in inventory, put green stickers on the parts that passed inspection and notify the customer. "QA will make sure we don't ship any more bad parts," he says.

Problem solved

After the meeting, the team agreed the root cause was poor training. So the plant staff videotaped the day shift and trained night shift employees by showing them the tapes. The next morning everyone was building the product the same way.

QA reinspected all the material in inventory and found only conforming parts for the fit characteristics. During the reinspection process, 50 of 2,000 parts were scratched and scrapped. The customer was told all material was reinspected, marked with green dots and shipped and all employees were retrained.

The problem was apparently solved. The plant reacted quickly and seemed to do a great job. Several days later, the customer issued a stop shipment order because the reinspected parts were just as bad as the earlier parts.

What's the problem?

In its concern for customer satisfaction, the company corrected things before describing the problem. By not completely describing the problem first, the company had nothing to test for potential root causes. It allowed the corrective action process to be the sounding board of personnel bias. How could it implement corrective actions without knowing the problem?

Problem description

A good problem description is the key to the corrective action process described by Kepner-Tregoe.1 Corrective action teams use the initial problem description as their starting point, but the initial reports are often spotty and incomplete. The team must investigate the initial description, and the best source of clarification is the person who reported the issue. Ask that person the following questions:

  • Who saw the problem first?
  • What is the problem definition in customer terms?
  • What is the problem definition in our (the company's) terms?
  • Since the problem was first reported, has it been increasing, decreasing, remaining constant or recurring?
  • When (time of day) is the problem seen?
  • When in the process (at what step or station) does the problem occur?
  • Where on the part is the problem seen?
  • How many parts are reported as involved? Can the problem be expressed in percentages, dollars or pieces?

This list can help anyone receiving initial complaints ask the right questions during the first contact. It is also good to log the contact's name, position and phone numbers.

A well-stated problem description speeds a robust corrective action process. It helps identify potential root causes and eliminate bias and noise. Accurate problem descriptions save time and effort by focusing the team on root cause identification. Using tools such as the fishbone diagram, the team can test potential root causes against the problem statement. The verified root cause will address all the whats and whens in the problem statement.

One way you can improve the problem description process is by providing specialized training to your primary customer contact employees. Continuous improvement happens when root causes are found and permanently eliminated. The problem description is the first step in this process.


1. Charles Kepner and Benjamin Tregoe, The Rational Manager (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965).


Chesla, Erik, Successful Teamwork (New York: Learning Express, 2000).

Feller, Gary, The Deming Vision (Milwaukee: ASQ Quality Press, 1992).

Nadler, Gerald, Breakthrough Thinking (Rocklin, CA: Prima Publishing & Communications, 1990).

Stryker, Perrin, "Can You Analyze This Problem?" Harvard Business Review, May/June 1965.

GEORGE R. RAUB III is director of continuous improvement for Irvin Automotive Products in Auburn Hills, MI. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Eastern Michigan University. Raub is a Senior Member of ASQ and a certified quality manager and engineer.

If you would like to comment on this article, please post your remarks on the Quality Progress Discussion Board on www.asqnet.org, or e-mail them to editor@asq.org.

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers