The Problem Statement is deceptively simple. Yet, we know it is so difficult to write. Why? And how can we effectively write one that is convincing, rallies people around the cause, aligned and focues, and maintains momentum for the team after the inertia has worn off?
Before I write about the elements of an effective Problem Statement, let me first address its common enemy: Clutter.
William Zinsser once wrote the following about writing well and the role of clutter:
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon.
Who can understand the viscous language of everyday American commerce and enterprise: the business letter, the interoffice memo, the corporation report, the notice from the bank explaining its latest “simplified” statement? What member of an insurance or medical plan can decipher the brochure that tells him what his costs and benefits are? What father or mother can put together a child’s toy—on Christmas Eve or any other eve—from the instructions on the box? Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t dream of saying that it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.
Perhaps a sentence is so excessively cluttered that the reader, hacking his way through the verbiage, simply doesn’t know what it means. Perhaps a sentence has been so shoddily constructed that the reader could read it in any of several ways. Perhaps the writer has switched pronouns in mid-sentence, or has switched tenses, so the reader loses track of who is talking or when the action took place. Perhaps Sentence B is not a logical sequel to Sentence A—the writer, in whose head the connection is clear, has not bothered to provide the missing link. Perhaps the writer has used an important word incorrectly by not taking the trouble to look it up.
Then, Zinsser offers a solution:
How can the rest of us achieve such enviable freedom from clutter? The answer is to clear our heads of clutter. Clear thinking becomes clear writing.
Indeed, clear thinking becomes clear writing. So, get clear about your thinking.
The Problem Statement
I wanted to set the stage with Zinsser’s discussion on clutter because unclear writing is often the root cause for poorly-written problem statements. The upshot of a poorly-written problem statement is that the actual problem might actually be important and should be addressed, but if delivered poorly – or the story isn’t shared effectively – then, nobody will likely care.
What Are We Solving For?
We must frame the problem appropriately, setting the context for the audience that might not be familiar with the problem.
Here are a few elements that make for an effective problem statement:
- Focused and Concise: A problem statement should be based on fact and should be just a few sentences.
- Create a sense of ownership for the team: creating ownership for the problem can be in the form of how it affects employees, the company, or morale.
- Describe the symptoms in measurable terms, using measures such as money, time, customers affected, compliance regulations broken, or other important metrics.
Ineffective Problem Statements
Here are few elements that make for ineffective problem statements:
- The problem statement assigns blame to a person, group, or “it’s not our fault” or “it’s their fault” statements.
- The problem statement assigns cause.
- The problem statement offers a solution.
- The problem statement is too broad – boiling the ocean strategy.
Problem Statement Examples
The examples below are considered effective problem statements and contain the elements I discuss above.
- Data gathered between 2/19/04 and 3/5/04 showed that 49% of total case replenishment time was spent in within-warehouse travel. Based on 2004 forecasted labor hours, we will spend approximately $4.5MM on within-warehouse travel costs.
- For the western region fulfillment center, an average of 1749 shipments per day miss the 12 and 20 hour deadline for premium shipments. This equates to over 500,000 shipments per year – over 1/2 million customers that will receive their package later than promised.
- In the southwestern call center, we received an average of 323 contacts about missing instructions for product Y in the last 27 days. Annually, this amounts to 4380 contacts at an average cost per contact of $6.75; these unnecessary contacts will cost the company almost $30,000 – money the company does not have to spend.
Cost of Doing Nothing
One effective way to set the stage with a problem statement is by showing what will happen if nothing is done about the problem. This might be phrased like the following:
For the previous 90 days, company x has documented 35 workplace recordable injuries, resulting in 250 hours of paid time off due to health-related reasons. If we do nothing, we can expect xyz more employees injuring themselves, possibly costing the company in xyz in productivity and abc in annual costs.
Practice Over Theory
Like with most things in Lean Six Sigma, one learns from doing. So, go try it today and have your peers review and provide feedback.