Problem solving


In today’s post, we will discuss what a problem statement is, and the key elements of a problem statement, how to write a SMART problem statement with examples.

Problem statements are widely used by most businesses and organizations to execute process improvement projects. A simple and well-defined problem statement will be used by the project team to understand the problem and work toward developing a solution. It will also provide management with specific insights into the problem so that they can make appropriate project-approving decisions. As such, it is crucial for the problem statement to be clear and unambiguous.

What is a Problem Statement?

A problem statement is a concise description of the problem or issues a project or initiatives seek to address. The problem statement identifies the current state, the desired future state, and any gaps between the two. A problem statement is a crucial communication tool that can help ensure that everyone working on a project is aware of the issue they need to solve and the significance of the project.

What is a SMART Problem Statement?

SMART is an acronym used when creating objectives to define a set of criteria that are easy to understand and to know when they have been fulfilled.

 Applying SMART to a Problem Statement:

  • Specific              – target a specific area for improvement
  • Measurable      – quantify or show an indicator of progress Applied to the ideal state:
  • Achievable        – they need to be agreed upon, be attainable, and able to be implemented
  • Realistic             – states what results can realistically be achieved, given available resources
  • Time-bound     – there need to be deadlines, but are they reasonable?

So, the Problem Statement is a simple sentence that contains the problem but no causes or solutions, and to be a SMART Problem Statement it needs to be Specific and Measurable and clearly say “what is wrong with what, how much and so what’.

Importance of a problem statement

A problem statement is important to a process improvement project because it helps clearly identify the goals of the project and outline the scope of a project. It also helps guide the activities and decisions of the people who are working on the project. The problem statement can help a business or organization gain support and buy-in for a process improvement project.

What are the key elements of a problem statement?

There are four key elements you should include when writing a problem statement:

1. Ideal situation

The first thing your problem statement should describe is what the ideal situation would be if there was no problem you needed to address. This section identifies the goals and scope of the project. This section should create a clear understanding of what the ideal environment will be once the issue has been resolved.

2. Reality

The next section of your problem statement should describe what the current reality is for your company or organization. This section will identify what the problem is, state why it is a problem, and identify whom the problem is impacting. It will also describe when and where the problem was identified.

3. Consequences

The next section of your problem statement should identify the consequences of the problem. This section describes the effects of the problem by describing how the people affected by the problem are being impacted and quantifying how much the problem is impacting them. Common consequences can include the loss of time, money, resources, competitive advantage, productivity, and more.

4. Proposal

The proposal section of a problem statement may contain several possible solutions to the problem, but it is important to remember that it does not need to identify a specific solution. The purpose of the proposal section should be to guide the project team on how they can research, investigate and resolve the problem.

How to write a SMART Problem Statement

A good problem statement can be created by identifying and answering several questions related to the problem. The process of writing a problem statement should involve answering questions using a method commonly known as 5W2H. It is a tool that provides guiding questions when assessing a process or problem. The five W’s-who, what, when, where, and why, and the two H’s-how and how much – force you to consider various facets of the situation being analysed.

This process involves identifying:

What is the problem? When does it occur? Where does it happen? Who is affected by it? Why is it happening? How often does it happen? How much is the impact?

You can use the following process to craft a problem statement that addresses the following:

Identify the problem

Before you can begin writing your problem statement, you first need to identify what the problem is.

Begin your statement with your ideal situation

Next, you can begin writing your problem statement by describing what the ideal environment would look like if your problem didn’t exist. This section should try to describe what your company hopes to accomplish as a result of the process improvement project.

Describe current gaps

Next, write the reality section of your problem statement. Your goal in this section should be to clearly identify what the current environment looks like. In this section, you should identify what the problem is, what is causing the problem and why it is an issue. You should also describe when, where and how you were able to identify the problem.

State the consequences of the problem

Next, write the consequences section of your problem statement. This section is used to quantify and support the claim of what the problem is. You can use this section to identify specific numbers such as the amount of time or revenue being lost, or the number of resources being wasted. It is important to include concrete numbers that support your claims in this section.

Propose addressing the problem

Finally, end your statement with a proposal section. In this section, you should try to identify how your company will make progress toward reaching your goals and accomplishing your ideal environment. While you may choose to identify several possible solutions in this section, it is more important to focus on identifying how your company will find those solutions than it is to identify the specific solution that will be used.

How do we use a SMART Problem Statement?

  1. We create a Specific Problem Statement when we want to gain clarity about what it is that we actually want to improve. This is the first step is to start by defining the ‘problem’ so that it is Specific and Measurable.
  2. Further on in the process when we have agreed on our ‘ideal state’ and are considering options, we use it to ensure that the solution we choose is Achievable, Realistic, or Relevant and Time-bound.

Example of a SMART Problem Statement

Please note that it is not wrong to start with a bad Problem Statement. It is part of the work in the problem exploration and definition to go from a bad Problem Statement to a better one.

As an example, a simple statement might be:

‘The Dispatch Bicycle is always broken …’

This can be turned into a SMART Problem Statement by exploring the problem using ‘5W2H Questions’:

  • What is the problem?                  Dispatch Bicycle Breakdown
  • When does it occur?                    Monday, this week
  • Where does it happen?               Lagos Depot
  • Who is affected by it?                  Sales Representative
  • Why is it happening?                   Bad Brake
  • How often does it happen?         Every other day
  • How much is the impact?            45% loss of revenue, additional waiting time, and customer complaints.

Now re-write your Problem Statement to include the answers to the 5W2H.

“The dispatch bicycle at Lagos depot has not been available 50% of the time this week due to a bad brake. This resulted in a 45% loss of revenue from the depot Sales representative, additional waiting time, and increased customer complaints”

Conclusively, a clearly defined and well-understood problem is crucial to finding and implementing effective solutions. It can be in different areas of life endeavours. In academic research, business problem analysis, personal life projects, process improvement, and so many others. It will help to identify the issue that is a concern and focus it in a way that allows it to be studied or analysed in a systematic way that guides easily to the solution of the problem.

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Written by Hay-R-Hay

Written by ABATAN RAFIU ABIOLA (Hay-R-Hay)
CIPM®, PMP®, CMRP®, CLSSBB, COREN., MNiMechE, MISPON, FAAPM, AGILPM® Highly dependable, trustworthy, self-motivated, commercially aware, and technically astute professional. Profile


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