A problem statement is a brief statement of a gap to be closed, an objective to be achieved, or an obstacle to be overcome during project development. Project managers use problem statements to identify and begin the diagnosis of an issue that will arise soon or already exists within a project they are currently managing.
A solid problem statement will fully examine a problem from as many angles as possible to fully interpret any blockers or shortcomings that stand in the way of successfully completing the project.
How to Write an Effective Problem Statement
An effective problem statement needs to be actionable, concise, and thorough before it may be presented to a team in good faith. A project manager is first and foremost a team leader.
This means that a problem statement written by a competent project manager is more than simply a place to vent frustrations about a lagging production schedule. A problem statement is not the place to hash out personal vendettas, even if the problem in question is related directly to interpersonal conflict.
Using the most objective lens possible to create a useful and actionable problem statement will not only prevent any targeted interpersonal grief but will also illuminate the road ahead and prepare fertile ground for problem-solving.
Examine the Problem Thoroughly
Problem statements benefit quite well from thorough examination. This allows project managers to get to the root of a problem in order to find a solution. Two methods a project manager can use include the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) and the five whys.
The five Ws
The five Ws do not have to be the guidepost a project manager uses to understand the contours of a problem that has presented itself, but they are the easiest to remember.
Start by asking “who” the problem is. The “who,” in this case, is not always a person. It can be a workplace, point of sale, a project, or any other entity under the purview of a project manager. The first step in examining a problem is understanding what exactly is subject to problematic circumstances.
Once the “who” has been established, the “what” will often naturally present itself. For example, if a truck axle snaps in half during the final sprint of a construction project, the “who” is the construction site and the “what” is the inability to transport material around the construction site. Getting to the core of “what” may be simple in many cases, but it is crucial to understand this blockage before continuing with the problem statement.
Establish a point in time the issue began to arise. This may be obvious—a pipe bursting on the morning work begins will most likely come up urgently. Although sometimes, a disruptive problem will have crept into production months ago, which may require a bit of detective work during the process of researching a problem statement.
Where in the production or daily work environment is this problem arising? Is this problem born out of staffing issues? Could faulty equipment be the culprit?
The ability to pick out the source of the problem will produce more effective problem statements. Keeping a cool head and carefully following the trail a blocker leaves behind will quickly surface the pain points creating the issue at hand.
Why is it important to solve this problem? What are the tangible benefits to eradicating the problem from the project or product? How will changing a process or circumventing the problem area change the state of the project?
The five whys
Another common method for extracting details is The Five Whys. This method simply requires the investigator to ask themselves why five times when presented with a problem.
A common example of this is diagnosing a car that will not start. Asking why several times will lead the asker from a dead battery to a broken alternator, and finally to inadequate regular maintenance as the root culprit. The Five Whys encourage critical thinking with the minimum amount of rhetorical tools at hand.
Begin Drafting the Problem Statement
A problem statement exists to not only state the existence of a problem but also to spur along action. Once a thorough and honest investigation into the pain points of a project has been completed, it is time to begin giving form to a previously formless blockage.
Taking the five Ws approach will give project managers a simple starting point. The order in which those questions were asked will also provide a simple outline for presenting the problem statement.
Begin by identifying the problem as specifically as possible, and continue by briefly describing its effects. An initial solution may naturally arise while writing a problem statement. It is recommended that these solutions are noted and saved until a problem statement has been successfully formulated and presented to the relevant parties.
Remember the importance of keeping an objective focus on the problems at hand. Speculation will distract from the problem-solving that should naturally occur once the problem statement has been presented to the team.
In addition, pointed assignment of blame will leave co-workers reluctant to work with the team to fix a problem. It will also often present more problems in the future.
Sample Problem Statements
Problem statements do not have to follow a specific formula. The approach a project manager takes in understanding a fully-formed problem statement will lay the foundation of a project manager’s personal problem statement style.
The Five Ws
When the doughnut shop (who) closes at 3 p.m., which is the end of its customer volume, it throws away 10 dozen units of product at the end of the day (where). This food waste costs the shop at least an hour of lost production time in the mornings (what). This overproduction seems to come from a misaligned production target established at the beginning of the production cycle every day (why). This daily target was set last quarter when the shop’s sales were higher (when).
The Five Whys
We are going to miss our production deadline.
Why?: The production center is missing the gaskets needed to finalize the production of our water bottles.
Why?: They were never delivered.
Why?: Supply chain slowdowns have created delays in the delivery of our gaskets.
Why?: A bottleneck has been created by a lack of delivery drivers.
Why?: Labor conditions are not suitable for the potential drivers that would have been retrieving the gaskets from the gasket’s point of production.
Understanding the Purpose of a Problem Statement
Notice that the sample problem statements do not assign blame or posit a solution in their statement. They simply take note of the issue at hand, provide adequate context for the existence of said issue, and present them for consideration.
Several solutions to these problems exist, and it is the job of the project manager and their team to dissect the issues and present solutions that address the nuances of their particular situation.