The problems with problem statements

Jon Miller suggests there are problems with problem statements in Top 10 Problems with Problem Statements:

The problem with problem statements is that hardly anyone knows how to correctly formulate a problem statement and instead they put a lot of information there in place of sound arguments and justification for action, and people would be better off leaving the writing of problem statements to professionals.
[Referenced by a friend on the CriticalChain mailing list.]

Of course, the above statement is problematic, as Miller suggests.  These are the things he says problem statements should not do / be.

  1. Assign a cause
  2. Contain the solution
  3. Are based on conjecture or belief rather than fact
  4. Are too long
  5. Do not describe actual current condition or problem condition
  6. Do not describe the ideal or desired condition
  7. Are not measurable
  8. Are unclear
  9. Are not specific
  10. Refer to issues outside of the scope of the actual problem

This is good, basic advice on clear writing.  I don't know whether it requires a professional - just some practice and coaching.  In the Theory of Constraints world, training on the "thinking processes" include similar reminders on how to write clearly when putting together problem statement: current problems, potential problems, actual obstacles, etc.

For example, here are the list of recommendations for writing problem statements (UDE's - undesirable effects, in the TOC lingo):

  • Express in a single sentence, present tense
  • Exists in current reality
  • It is an effect (not a cause, absence of a solution, or an obstacle)
  • It is clearly negative (quantified or qualified)
  • It is a single effect without conjunctions or explanations.  (Multiple problems deserve multiple statements.)
  • It's a problem that is valid in the current situation.  (It affects your ability to achieve the goal.)
  • No blame
  • Do NOT include perceived reasons for its existence (no names, no "because ...")
  • Not the absence of a solution (that others have argued for)

With obstacles (to an implementation), there are a similar set of checks, with an emphasis on "does the obstacle actually exist."

If you hear someone say, "I have a clarity reservation," you know they have been to a lot of TOC training.  This simply means, the statement you've articulated isn't clear enough.  It may be missing one of these pieces or it just doesn't make sense.  "Let's clarify it for everyone's benefit."

2 Comment(s)

Great post, Jack. I'm going to study this one very closely; it's directly related to a project of mine right now. Thanks.


Dale said:

We have found that a process by Kepner Tregoe helps us out a lot when it comes to clearly defining problems.

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