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5 Elements of a Problem Statement

Featured Best Practice on Problem Solving

198-slide PowerPoint presentation
The PDCA cycle, also known as the Deming Cycle or the Shewhart cycle, is a four-step continuous improvement process that is widely used in quality management, business improvement, and project management. The four steps of the PDCA cycle are: - Plan: In this step, you define the problem or [read more]

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Managing any organization can be described as a constant stream of problems that need to be managed and solved.  However, oftentimes, people like to immediately implement solutions without having spent the time and effort to truly understand and analyze the true nature of the problem at hand. 

Thus, organizations end up spending a lot of time, effort, and money without precisely knowing what the endeavor is going to do for them.

The need to distinctly define the most-pressing problem—an organization is facing—that requires solution is a very genuine requirement.  Being able to clearly define the problem can make an organization a leader in the industry since it will be effectively implementing change on a regular basis.

Research over some decades suggests that a person’s mind has a minimum of 2 disparate approaches for attempting Problem Solving.  Which approach takes over is contingent on both the person’s present situation and the surrounding environment.  These 2 approaches to Problem Solving are:

  1. Automatic Processing—where humans do not have control over the processing and are even unaware of it happening.
  2. Conscious Processing—Portion or function of the brain that a person controls, is represented by Conscious Processing.

These 2 approaches confront problems differently and do so at dissimilar speeds.  A sizable and mounting compendium of research points out that it is beneficial to differentiate between the 2 modes of thinking.

Structured Problem Solving relates to the 2nd approach i.e., Conscious Processing.  Structured Problem Solving involves creating a logical argument that associates the observed data to root causes and, ultimately, to an answer. 

Forming an efficaciously lucid chain begins with a coherent description of the problem.  A decent Problem Statement should have 5 essential elements:

  1. Importance
  2. Problem–Solution Gap
  3. Quantification
  4. Neutrality
  5. Scope

Forming a Problem Statement raises the probability of taking advantage of the potencies of Conscious Processing and may also develop the environment for causing and then assessing an ‘Aha’ moment.

Let us look at these elements in a little more detail.


Importance refers to the Problem Statement’s ability to reference a feature that really matters to an organization and links that feature to a well-defined and distinctive goal.  This is possible only when one is able to tie a straight path from the Problem Statement to the organization’s broader mission and goals.  The trap of concentrating on outlying issues at the outset should be avoided and focus should remain on the important matters.

Problem–Solution Gap

A good Problem Statement should include a coherent expression of the Gap between the present situation and the goal.  Research has proven that people are extra focused and struggle more when they have distinct and easily understandable goals in front of them.  A good Problem Statement helps create this focus by clearly identifying the Gap that needs filling.


Key variables—i.e., the goal, the present situation, and the gap—should be Quantifiable in an effective Problem Statement.  Quantification of a feature merely denotes that it has a distinct direction—i.e., one knows if more of it is good or bad.


A proper Problem Statement should maintain Neutrality regarding likely diagnosis or solutions.  As little presupposition regarding the cause of a problem should be made as practicably possible, during problem formulation.


The Scope defined in a Problem Statement should be concise enough to be tackled swiftly.

Interested in learning more about the 5 Elements of a Problem Statement?  You can download an editable PowerPoint on 5 Elements of a Problem Statement here on the Flevy documents marketplace.

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The 8D Problem Solving Process has become a standard in many industries as problem solving or improvement process, as internal Corrective Action Request (CAR) Process or as Supplier Corrective Action Request (SCAR) Process. The 8D Problem Solving Process Training Module [read more]

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About Mark Bridges

Mark Bridges is a Senior Director of Strategy at Flevy. Flevy is your go-to resource for best practices in business management, covering management topics from Strategic Planning to Operational Excellence to Digital Transformation (view full list here). Learn how the Fortune 100 and global consulting firms do it. Improve the growth and efficiency of your organization by leveraging Flevy's library of best practice methodologies and templates. Prior to Flevy, Mark worked as an Associate at McKinsey & Co. and holds an MBA from the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. You can connect with Mark on LinkedIn here.

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