The Statement Problem

Address problems by first answering the five Ws

by Max Kush

An important first step in correcting a poorly performing process, or improving a marginally capable one, is recognizing that there is a gap between what is and what should be occurring in the process.

Appropriate process metrics provide a way to measure process changes and provide information about the size of the gap. Beyond metrics, additional insight into the problem is needed to ensure an organization is efficiently and effectively attacking the correct issues.

The problem statement provides a way to clearly add detail about the gap. Moreover, a well-crafted problem statement in a project charter helps the sponsor understand the problem environment, leading to better project-approval decisions.

The problem statement should be a concise description of the facts that need to be addressed and should answer the five Ws (who, where, what, when and why.) Notice that the H, or the how, isnl’t included because thatl’s what the investigative efforts hopefully will uncover as the underlying root cause for the gap. Knowing the facts associated with the gap, investigation and resolution of the problem can be done in the least amount of time at the lowest cost.

The difficulty with developing a problem statement is that, oftentimes, it’s assumed that everyone knows what the problem is. Inevitably, a poorly crafted, or incorrect, problem statement is generated.

When the reason for a problem is presumed to be known a priori, two possible versions of the problem statement may result. In one case, the problem statement is extremely sparse in information and detail, such as: "Our department has been getting complaints from our customers."

At the other extreme, a priori knowledge may lead to a detailed, but completely wrong problem statement or one that jumps to identifying the solution, such as: "We need to retrain the work order processors because they are taking too long and causing our customers to complain about our department being slow to respond."

As you can see, both problem statements sound OK, but are inadequate for investing valuable resources in closing the problem gap.

How do you develop a good problem statement based on facts surrounding the problem? One method is to write things down to try to capture the problem. This can be an ineffective approach, especially for novices who struggle to put thoughts into a detailed and coherent statement. Crafting the problem statement is like writing for an English composition assignment, so why not use the same idea of working from an outline?

The outline can be represented as a problem statement matrix that includes clues for capturing the five Ws (see Table 1). The facts needed to fill in the matrix can be found through targeted interviews, historical data or high-level preliminary investigations that are quickly done at low costs.

Table 1

The matrix is used to write the detailed problem statement: "Our work order processing department has been averaging 10% more complaints each month during the past three months after introducing the new Excel 2013 tool to manage work orders for all organizational departments."

In this example, the focused problem statement was instrumental in guiding efforts that found and fixed an incorrect cell formula used to calculate work order due dates.

Sometimes, during the analyze phase of the Six Sigma define, measure, analyze, improve and control method, the original problem statement is found to be incorrect based on new information uncovered about the gap.1 The problem statement matrix can again be used to capture new details and facts for crafting a focused problem statement.


  1. Anthony Manos and Chad Vincent, The Lean Handbook: A Guide to the Bronze Certification Body of Knowledge, ASQ Quality Press, 2012, p. 141.

Max Kush is principal consultant at the lean/Six Sigma consulting firm of MSK Consulting Group in Rio Rancho, NM. He has an MBA from Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville, GA. He is a senior member of ASQ and is an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt.

I find the problem statement matrix a useful tool in defining problem statements

Aylin N. Sener
--Aylin N. Sener, 06-19-2015

I used the table in this article to assist in the NOE process for writing clear and concise problem statements. Everyone thought it was a great idea and loved having a visual to use as a tool versus a blank form with a section labeled "Problem Statement".
--Nikki Swopes, 06-04-2015

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