Have you ever found yourself in the midst of a project status review with your management, and your heart sinks when you realize there was a misinterpretation of the original core issue?
How about the frustration of your project getting pushed out only for other less beneficial projects to get the resources?
Recall any similar wasteful issues while you were otherwise on a mission of eliminating waste? Imagine how a creating a solid problem statement could have helped prevent setbacks like these. A problem statement not only communicates the value of what you are doing, but also delivers value by promoting efficiency.
Why didn’t you say that in the first place? (Value from the Problem Statement)
An effective problem statement is an indispensable communication tool, especially with technical projects. A problem statement originates both a curb and compass for your project team – it becomes the basis for developing your scope and guiding your approach. It provides context and focus for the project, resulting in improved alignment and solidarity among team members. From a good problem statement, you understand at a minimum:
1. The Subject – the specific object or population of interest
2. The Gap or Expectation – the difference between the current state and the ideal state
3. The Impact – why it is important
Bringing these elements together at the onset of your project in a thoughtful, concise statement is crucial to success. Why wouldn’t you define and communicate who, what, and why before doing anything else?
Whether in a continuous improvement loop, a problem-solving method, project charter, or research proposal, a sound problem statement is key to getting started right. A weak, incomplete, or inaccurate problem statement is immediately destructive to your project, and a painful amount of time and energy could pass before you recognize it.
Charles Kettering insightfully pronounced, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” 
Consider this corollary for added perspective: A problem takes twice as long to solve when there’s a deficient problem statement.
If you’re about the business of improvement or advancement or efficiency (and most of us are), then don’t gloss this over. Be consistent and properly invest at the start. Develop an effective problem statement before embarking on your project, and make it one that considers stakeholders and is conveyed to all involved. From there you will find value from your problem statement – making life easier, and saving time and money.
What’s your problem worth to me? (Value in the Problem Statement)
When it comes to creating a problem statement, including the “object” and the “gap” is usually intuitive, but the “impact” component is sometimes missed. Isn’t it important to put a value to your problem? After all, while companies typically revere employing structured scientific methods, they don’t always want to invest in a project just for “science’s sake.” Your problem statement should be compelling and identify some type of payback.
The impact of the gap between the current and ideal situations has some value to the stakeholders. That value could be financial, health, product longevity, etc. As part of your problem statement you should address questions like:
+ What are the costs if we can’t find a permanent corrective action and cease paying for containment?
+ How will our industry rating be affected if this warranty issue isn’t solved?
+ What will we get in return for this investment?
In this manner, treat your problem statement as a proposal you’re trying to sell. You need to convince yourself and your stakeholders that it’s worth the investment. Since there is no shortage of issues or projects to work on, make sure the one you’re exploring is worthwhile and a priority. Quantify the value of solving your problem.
Written by: Brian Lauer, Product Development Engineer | Brian has a B.S. in Manufacturing Systems Engineering from GMI, and over 20 years of manufacturing and product engineering experience across Automotive, Office Furniture, Appliance and Heavy Truck industries.