Problem Statement Framing

A well-framed problem statement opens possibilities, while a bad problem statement closes down alternatives and quickly sends you down dead ends of facile thinking.

Consider a few typical problem statements you might hear during a management review:

  1. We have too many deviations
  2. We do not have enough people to process the deviations we get
  3. 45% of deviations are recurring

You hear this sort of framing regularly. Notice that only the third is a problem, the other two are solutions. And in the case of the first statement it can leave to some negative results. The second just has you throw more resources at the problem, which may or may not be a good thing. In both cases we are biasing the problem-solving process just as we begin.

The third problem statement pushes us to think. A measurable fact raises other questions that will help us develop better solutions: why are out deviations recurring? Why are we not solving issues when they first occur? What processes/areas are they recurring in? Are we putting the right amount of effort on important deviations? How can we eliminate these deviations?

If a problem statement has only one solution, reframe it to avoid jumping to conclusions.

By focusing on a problem statement with objective facts (45% of deviations are recurring) we can ask deeper, thoughtful questions which will lead to wisdom, and to better solutions.

To build a good problem statement:

  1. Begin with observable facts, not opinions, judgments, or interpretations.
  2. Describe what is happening by answering questions like “How much/How many/How long/How often.” This creates room for exploration and discovery.
  3. Iterate on the problem statement. As you think more deeply on the situation modify your first version. This is a sign that you understand more about the situation. This is the kind of data that will join with the facts you discover to lead towards sound decisions.

The 5W2H tool is always a good place to start.

5W2HTypical questionsContains
Who?Who are the people directly concerned with the problem? Who does this? Who should be involved but wasn’t? Was someone involved who shouldn’t be?Roles and Departments
What?What happened?Action, steps, description
When?When did the problem occur?Times, dates, place In process
Where?Where did the problem occur?Location
Why is it important?Why did we do this? What are the requirements? What is the expected condition?Justification, reason
How?How did we discover. Where in the process was it?Method, process, procedure
How Many? How Much?How many things are involved? How often did the situation happen? How much did it impact?Number, frequency

Remember this can be iterative as you discover more information and the problem statement at the end might not necessarily be the problem statement at the beginning.

ElementsProblem Statement
Is used to…Understand and target a problem.
Provide a scope.
Evaluate any risks.
Make objective decisions
Answers the following… (5W2H)What? (problem that occurred)
When? (timing of what occurred)
Where? (location of what occurred)
Who? (persons involved/observers)
Why? (why it matters, not why it occurred)
How Much/Many? (volume or count)
How Often? (First/only occurrence or multiple)
Contains…Object (What was affected?) Defect (What went wrong?)
Provides direction for…Escalation(s)  Investigation

Structured What-If Technique as a Risk Assessment Tool

The structured what-if technique, SWIFT, is a high-level and less formal risk identification technique that can be used independently, or as part of a staged approach to make bottom-up methods such as FMEA more efficient. SWIFT uses structured brainstorming in a facilitated workshop where a predetermined set of guidewords (timing, amount, etc.) are combined with prompts elicited from participants that often begin with phrases such as “what if?” or “how could?”.

At the heart of a SWIFT is a list of guidewords to enable a comprehensive review of risks or sources of risk. At the start of the workshop the context, scope and purpose of the SWIFT is discussed and criteria for success articulated. Using the guidewords and “what if?” prompts, the facilitator asks the participants to raise and discuss issues such as:

  • known risks
  • risk sources and drivers
  • previous experience, successes and incidents
  • known and existing controls
  • regulatory requirements and constraints

The list of guidewords is utilized by the facilitator to monitor the discussion and to suggest additional issues and scenarios for the team to discuss. The team considers whether controls are adequate and if not considers potential treatments. During this discussion, further “what if?” questions are posed.

Often the list of risks generated can be used to fuel a qualitative or semi-quantitative risk assessment method, such as an FMEA is.

A SWIFT Analysis allows participants to look at the system response to problems rather than just examining the consequences of component failure. As such, it can be used to identify opportunities for improvement of processes and systems and generally can be used to identify actions that lead to and enhance their probabilities of success.

What-If Analysis

What–If Analysis is a structured brainstorming method of determining what things can go wrong and judging the likelihood and consequences of those situations occurring.  The answers to these questions form the basis for making judgments regarding the acceptability of those risks and determining a recommended course of action for those risks judged to be unacceptable.  An experienced review team can effectively and productively discern major issues concerning a process or system.  Lead by an energetic and focused facilitator, each member of the review team participates in assessing what can go wrong based on their past experiences and knowledge of similar situations.

What If?AnswerLikelihoodSeverityRecommendations
What could go wrong?What would happen if it did?How likely?ConsequencesWhat will we do about them Again – prevent and monitor
What-If Analysis

Steps in a SWIFT Analysis

SWIFT Risk Assessment
  1. Prepare the guide words: The facilitator should select a set of guide words to be used in the SWIFT.
  2. Assemble the team: Select participants for the SWIFT workshop based on their knowledge of the system/process being assessed and the degree to which they represent the full range of stakeholder groups.
  3. Background: Describe the trigger for the SWIFT (e.g., a regulatory change, an adverse event, etc.).
  4. Articulate the purpose: Clearly explain the purpose to be served by the SWIFT (e.g., to improve effectiveness of the process).
  5. Define the requirements: Articulate the criteria for success
  6. Describe the system: Provide appropriate-level textual and graphical descriptions of the system or process to be risk assessed. A clear understanding is necessary and can be is established through interviews, gathering a multifunctional team and through the study of documents, plans and other records. Normally the
  7. Identify the risks/hazards: This is where the structured what-if technique is applied. Use the guide words/headings with each system, high-level subsystem, or process step in turn. Participants should use prompts starting with the phrases like “What if…” or “How could…” to elicit potential risks/hazards associated with the guide word. For instance, if the process is “Receipt of samples,” and the guide word is “time, timing or speed,” prompts might include: “What if the sample is delivered at a shift change” (wrong time) or “How could the sample be left waiting too long in ambient conditions?” (wrong timing).
  8. Assess the risks: With the use of either a generic approach or a supporting risk analysis technique, estimate the risk associated with the identified hazards. In light of existing controls, assess the likelihood that they could lead to harm and the severity of harm they might cause. Evaluate the acceptability of these risk levels, and identify any aspects of the system that may require more detailed risk identification and analysis.
  9. Propose actions: Propose risk control action plans to reduce the identified risks to an acceptable level.
  10. Review the process: Determine whether the SWIFT met its objectives, or whether a more detailed risk assessment is required for some parts of the system.
  11. Document: Produce an overview document to communicate the results of the SWIFT.
  12. Additional risk assessment: Conduct additional risk assessments using more detailed or quantitative techniques, if required. The SWIFT Analysis is really effective as a filtering mechanism to focus effort on the most valuable areas.

Guideword Examples

The facilitator and process owner can choose any guide words that seem appropriate. Guidewords usually stem around:

  • Wrong: Person or people
  • Wrong: Place, location, site, or environment
  • Wrong: Thing or things
  • Wrong: Idea, information, or understanding
  • Wrong: Time, timing, or speed
  • Wrong: Process
  • Wrong: Amount
  • Failure: Control or Detection
  • Failure: Equipment

If your organization has invested time to create root cause categories and sub-categories, the guidewords can easily start there.

Conceptual Framework

David Gray discusses conceptual frameworks in the MIT Sloan Management Review article “What Makes Successful Frameworks Rise Above the Rest.” In this article he provides 7 criteria to evaluate a conceptual framework that are very useful for consider the frameworks we develop and use.

Having an analytical framework to evaluate the strength of our tools and methodologies can be very valuable, and this is something I’ll be coming back to.

Who-What Matrix

Effective organizations assign people to particular roles, such as Process Owners, to solve problems better and make choices faster. Yet, it is frighteningly easy it is to exclude the right people in problem-solving. Who plays what role is not always clear in organizations. In organizations where specialized knowledge and expertise are distributed widely the different parts of an organization can see different problems in the same situation. Ensuring that the right people are at the whiteboard to solve the problem.

The Who-What Matrix is a great tool to ensure the right people are involved.

By including a wider set of people, the Who-What Matrix assists in creating trust, commitment, and a sense of procedural justice, and thus, enhance the likelihood of success. The matrix can also integrate people across functions, hierarchy, business units, locations, and partner organizations.

Once the need to problem-solve is identified, the matrix can be used to determine what people and organizations should be involved in which roles in problem-solving and whose interests should betaken into account in the deliberations. Players may provide input (information, ideas, resources); be part of the solving process(formulating problem, gathering data, doing analyses, generating solution options, supporting the work), be among those making choices or executing them. Considering the interests of all players during problem-solving can lead to better choices and outcomes.

The aim is to use the framework’s categories to think broadly but be selective in deciding which players play what role. A lengthy collection of players can be so overwhelming as to lead to neglect. The same player can play more than one role, and roles played can change over time. Players can come and go as problem-solving proceeds and circumstances change.

By deliberately bringing people into problem-solving, we are showing how to give people a meaningful role in the learning culture.

Who-What Matrix

The roles breakdown as:

  • Input: Provide input, provide data gathering, data sources
  • Recommend: Evaluate problem, recommend solutions and path forward
  • Decide: Make the final decision and commit the organization to action
  • Perform: Be accountable for making the decision happen once made
  • Agree: Formally approve a decision, implies veto power
  • Outcome: Accountable for the outcome of problem solving, results over time

Visual Management

In the organizational world Visual Management is a management system that attempts to improve organizational performance through connecting and aligning organizational vision, core values, goals and culture with other management systems, work processes, workplace elements, and stakeholders, by means of stimuli, which directly address one or more of the five human senses (sight, hearing, feeling, smell and taste). These stimuli communicate quality information (necessary, relevant, correct, immediate, easy to-understand and stimulating), which helps people make sense of the organizational context at a glance by merely looking around. It is a management approach that utilizes either one or more of information giving, signaling, limiting or guaranteeing (mistake-proofing/ poka-yoke) visual devices to communicate with “doers”, so that places become self-explanatory, self-ordering, self-regulating and self-improving.

FunctionDefinitionReplaces the Practice of
TransparencyThe ability of a process (or its parts) to communicate with people through organizational and physical means, measurements, and public display of information

Transparency stimulates people to move outside the confines of particular job responsibilities and to see the larger scale of their work
Information held in people‟s minds and on the shelves.
DisciplineMaking a habit of properly maintaining correct procedures by transforming the abstract concept of discipline into directly observable concrete practices

Address the six basic questions (the what, the where, the who, the how, the how many and the when)
Warning, scolding, inflicting punishments, dismissing etc.
Continuous ImprovementFocused and sustained incremental innovation

Makes organizational learning visual with high ability to respond to people’s ideas
Static organizations or big improvement leaps through considerable investment.
Job FacilitationConscious attempt to physically and/or mentally ease people’s efforts on routine, already known tasks, by offering various visual aidsExpecting people to perform well at their jobs without providing them any aids.
On-the-Job TrainingLearning from experience or integrating working with learning.Conventional training practices or offering no training.
Creating Shared OwnershipA feeling of possessiveness and being psychologically tied to the objectivesManagement dictation for change efforts, vision and culture creation.
Management by FactsUse of facts and data based on statisticsManagement by subjective judgement or vague terms.
SimplificationConstant efforts on monitoring, processing, visualizing and distributing system wide information for individuals and teamsExpecting people to monitor, process and understand the complex system wide information on their own.
UnificationPartly removing the boundaries and creating empathy within an organization through effective information sharingFragmentation or “this is not my job” behavior
The functions of Visual Management