Key Elements of a Strong Problem Statement

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There are many brilliant people all around with truly innovative and disruptive solutions to the world’s most challenging problems. However, if these innovators can’t articulate a compelling business case as to why the problem matters and their solution makes a difference – the solution will never be seen. So what constitutes a strong problem statement and what is the goal of having a problem statement?

The general function of a problem statement is to align stakeholders around the problem at hand to ensure everyone is working on the same issue. A problem statement also builds the business case and reason to solve the challenge, so that you and your team receive sufficient resources and backing from executive stakeholders and sponsors to pursue. You ultimately want to answer WIIFM – “What’s In It For ME?”. Answering this question for executive stakeholders and team members is a powerful form of influence you may employ to increase the success of your program.

Where Does the Ask Come From & How to Integrate,

In an organization, a mix of senior leader and passionate influencers make four key decisions about the business’s problem solving strategy.

  1. What are we going to work on?
  2. Who is going to work on it?
  3. What will the strategy be?
  4. What resources are needed?

Passionate influencers are mentioned because senior company leaders may be blind or ignorant to what key (low-level) challenges the business is facing and what current state of the art exists to deploy in solving these challenges. Passionate influencers are the unsung heroes within an organization that drive to reverse mentor these leaders and gain a stake of trust within the business to advise of such challenges and provide a “voice of the employee” to senior stakeholders. If you’re an executive leader within an organization and don’t have one of these eccentric influencers co-developing your strategy, this is an opportunity to begin developing someone.

Key Deliverables in Defining a Challenge or Problem Statement,

  • Answer WIIFM – “What’s In It For ME?”
  • Develop a compelling goal, program scope, identify team roles and responsibilities, and rough plan of attack.
  • Develop a high level process map of and identify the key opportunity areas
  • Create a shared need by laying out the logic for the change
  • Identify CTQs (Customer Critical to Quality) characteristics. The customer is whoever receives or benefits from the output of the solution, a CTQ trait are the items most important to this customer.

Other Helpful Factors & Pitfalls with Problem Statements

  • Does the problem statement include a root cause or solution? (Beware of this bias)
  • Is the problem statement based on fact or fiction(someone’s “gut” feel on the issue)
  • How would customers feel if they knew you were working on this?

Developing SMART Goals

SMART is a helpful acronym to build effective goals, is one of many methods to do so, and is widely used and recognized. SMART = Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time Bound.

  • Specific
    • Answer the five “W” questions: What do you what to achieve? Why is this important? Who is on the team? Where is the problem? Which resources are needed?
  • Measurable
    • Measurable means you need a way to compare your initial state with your end state with a number. How many or % was reduced? How much time was saved? How much cost was removed? Answering these questions is to to knowing when the challenge has been solved and goal was met.
  • Attainable
    • Is your goal within the realm of possibility? How realistic is the goal given the constrains, such as team, timeline, financial resources, and the power over making the change? Potential benchmark against comparable industries to better know what can be accomplished.
  • Relevant
    • Does the organization care about this challenge being solved and is the effort really worthwhile? Are you the right person to lead this or is this the right place and time to implement the solution?
  • Time Bound
    • When will you accomplish the goal? Outline over time what you can do, similar to a 30/60/90 plan. What can you achieve in 30 days? 60 days? 90 days?

Example Problem Statement,

Bad Example,

The cost of non-quality for our parts is too high

Better Example,

In the last 4 months (When), the defect rate for the Support Housing, Part number DN609837B, has increased for machined surfaces. (What) The current defect rate has increased from 5% on average to 39%, where 50% of the defective parts are repairable and the rest are scrap. (Magnitude) Each non-conforming part causes a 3 day increase to assembly cycle time and has resulted in a cost of non-quality of $417,000 per month. (Impact)


The above example identifies a time-bound problem that is measurable within the given time-frame and illustrates the with numbers how you know there is a problem (39% from 5% increase in defect rate). The impact of this problem, as it relates to the business and the customer, is also clearly stated – the business cares about the increased cost, and the customer expects on-time-delivery of the parts. This is a problem statement ready to communicate to a team, coordinate stakeholders, and begin to develop a SMART goal.


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