How to Write a Great Problem Statement (with Tips and an Example)
Using your initiative to identify and solve problems in the workplace shows employers you're proactive about continuous improvement. These skills add substantial value for companies and can help you progress in your career. Being able to identify problems is just the first step in implementing positive changes, and in order to become more successful when working on process improvement projects, you need to understand what a problem statement is and how to write one. In this article, we explain problem statements and their importance, outline steps for writing a problem statement and include an example to use as a reference.
What is a problem statement?
A problem statement outlines a specific problem faced by a business and what an ideal outcome might look like once they have addressed it. The statement will concisely explain the issue at hand, the consequence this has on the business, the ideal outcome and what gaps or barriers there are between the current reality and desired future. An effective problem statement will clearly communicate to everyone involved in a project what the problem is and will guide your actions for solving it. A thoughtful and thorough problem statement sets your team up for success when tackling a business problem.
The importance of a problem statement
A problem statement is a way to communicate the context of a problem within a business. This is beneficial to those working directly on the project, as it provides guidance and outlines the scope and desired outcome of the project. By making the problem more comprehensible, it becomes solvable. The problem statement can also be a useful communication tool when seeking executive support or additional resources for a project. By clearly and objectively outlining the issue at hand, problem statements convince others of how proactively addressing a particular problem can positively affect the business.
What are the key elements of a problem statement?
In order to write an effective problem statement, take some time to plan and analyze the problem at hand. To work towards a solution, it's essential that your team understands the full context and scope of the issue. To provide crucial context to your team, problem statements should include the following key elements:
Explain what the situation would look like without the problem at hand. We can also view this as the desired future of the business or the ideal outcome of the project. It should clearly outline what the ideal environment will look like once they have resolved the issue.
Next, describe the current reality. This section will identify the problem, explain why it's a problem and outline the affected stakeholders too. In this section, explain when and where the problem was first identified, and if the problem is following a trend, you can detail that here too. For example, if a problem is quickly getting worse, this should be mentioned as it will create a sense of urgency for the project.
Here you'll outline the impact of the problem and describe how it affects stakeholders. If the impact is quantifiable, explain the specific cost. For example, is the problem causing a loss of time, money, productivity or a competitive advantage? If the problem is qualitative, explain how the issue is affecting the company's customers, employees or stakeholders.
Now is the time to ask, "How might we solve the problem?" The purpose of the proposal section is to guide the project team and provide a sense of direction for the project. This might include several solutions that the team can research and investigate to solve the problem.
Considering the above elements before writing a problem statement will help you keep your writing focused and concise. This enables all relevant stakeholders to have an unbiased and clear understanding of the issue, which will be useful in the problem-solving process. The more organized the problem statement, the faster your company can analyze and solve the issue.
How to write a problem statement
After considering the above key elements for your problem statement, you're ready to begin the writing process. Next, let's discuss the step-by-step writing process. To help keep your statement focused and accurate, follow the steps below:
1. Begin your statement with the ideal situation
Here you will describe the ideal outcome. Explain how the process should work and what the ideal future of the business or department will look like once the team has resolved the problem at hand. This section will help guide the project towards an end goal, so be clear about exactly what you hope to achieve.
2. Explain the current reality and clearly outline the problem
Now that you've established what an ideal situation looks like, describe the current reality. Explain what the current environment looks like, what the problem is, who it affects, why it's a problem and why it needs to be solved. Summarize everything you know about the problem for the team, and explain when, how and who discovered the problem. This is your opportunity to explain and highlight the current situation in your business or department to others who might not have an in-depth understanding of the problem or process, so be as clear as you can.
3. Explain and quantify the consequences of the problem
To convince a business to invest time and resources in your project, you need to tell decision-makers what the cost is to the business if they ignore the problem. Use this section to highlight the specific costs, whether the cost is time, lost revenue or wasted resources. Try to find an exact dollar figure, as this will help justify their investment in your project.
4. Propose possible solutions
While you may have several solutions in mind, this section should provide a broad direction for solving the problem rather than focusing on a specific solution. Highlight the gaps between the current reality and ideal future state of the business, and identify how the company can make progress toward closing those gaps. This will provide some starting ideas to research during the problem-solving process.
5. Conclude with a summary
Finally, wrap up by briefly summarizing the problem, reiterating why the company should solve it and provide a general direction to follow to solve the issue.
Example of a problem statement
While problem statements will vary in length depending on the complexity of the problem, they typically follow the same structure, as outlined above. Here's an example of a problem statement for an issue identified at a customer service contact centre :
Our customer service agents should deliver a responsive service by responding to emails within 24 hours. By doing so, we can resolve customers' issues more promptly, leading to lower phone call volume and greater customer satisfaction.
Our agents do not have dedicated time to respond to emails built into their schedules and instead respond to emails between inbound phone calls. This is a problem because agents cannot focus on writing email responses, and phone calls often interrupt agents whilst working on an email response. As a result, agents are less efficient at responding to emails and this negatively impacts our department's response time, particularly during periods of higher phone call volume. We identified this problem during performance reviews with agents when questioned about not meeting our 24-hour response time target.
On average, our agents answer a customer's email between 48-72 hours after receiving it. This often leads to customers phoning in frustrated at the lack of response, which negatively impacts our customer satisfaction levels and demotivates our customer service team. We see greater brand loyalty from satisfied customers and the impact of unresponsive customer service dissuades customers from repeat purchases. This is also negatively impacting our brand image as an industry leader in customer service.
Our department seeks to resolve this issue by creating a continuous improvement team to explore several options for how we can respond to emails faster. The team will consider process changes, schedule optimization and new technologies, before determining the best solution for the company.
At present, our customer satisfaction, loyalty and brand image are being hindered by our slow email response times. This is due to a lack of dedicated time for customer service agents to focus on resolving email inquires, and we hope to resolve the problem by exploring several options within our continuous improvement team.
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