Have You Adequately Defined Your Situation?

by Russ Westcott

One of the most important criteria for decision making and problem solving is the need to clearly define the situation. As critical as this consideration is, it is frequently ignored or simply done poorly.

Charles H. Kepner and Benjamin B. Tregoe were the first people I’m aware of to use the is/is not matrix for specifying a problem. Since their book, The Rational Manager: A Systematic Approach to Problem Solving and Decision Making,1 the tool has appeared in a variety of contexts. For example, quality practitioners have used the tool for root cause analysis, project initiation, stratification of data, and identification of causes of a situation or event, just to name a few applications.2, 3, 4, 5

This simple yet powerful tool enables the planner or investigator to more clearly define the problem, decision or situation being addressed. The matrix structure varies with the intended use.

A typical layout can include the following: what, where, when, how much (extent) and who. Column headings can be: is (what is occurring), is not (what is not or might not occur) and differentiation (what appears out of place or odd). The cells are populated with available and pertinent descriptive data in as much detail as needed.

Table 1: Example of Is/Is Not Matrix

Not only is the is/is not matrix useful in problem definition and root cause analysis, but it is also extremely helpful in curbing scope creep in a proposed project. When tackling a project, it is as critical to know what will be included as well as what will not be included.

Early in my career, I used the matrix in defining the outputs of data processing applications with clients. The is/is not matrix helped avoid the “but I thought this program was going to give me …” complaint.

A less common but nonetheless critical application of the is/is not matrix is in the strategic planning process. Defining what will be included in the resulting strategic plans and what will not (or will be tabled for another time) helps prevent the overzealous nomination and adoption of strategies and plans that the organization is ill equipped to implement. Table 1 is an example of the is/is not matrix concept used in the initial stages of strategic planning.

Perhaps this simple yet valuable tool can fit into the planning stages of your next project. And maybe it can assist you and your team in staying within the boundaries of a project or problem.


  1. Charles H. Kepner and Benjamin B. Tregoe, The Rational Manager: A Systematic Approach to Problem Solving and Decision Making, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1965.
  2. John D. Arnold, The Complete Problem Solver: A Total System for Competitive Decision Making, John Wiley & Sons, 1992.
  3. Tom Kendrick, Results Without Authority: Controlling a Project When the Team Doesn’t Report To You, AMACOM, 2006.
  4. Peter R. Scholtes, The Team Handbook: How to Use Teams to Improve Quality, Joiner Associates, 1988.
  5. Nancy R. Tague, The Quality Toolbox, second edition, ASQ Quality Press, 2005. 

RUSS WESTCOTT is president of R.T. Westcott and Associates, Old Saybrook, CT. He is an ASQ fellow and a certified quality
auditor and manager of quality/organizational excellence.

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