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How to write a problem statement for root cause analysis

It happens to all of us at some point. Despite our best efforts, the team keeps running into the same blockers on a regular basis. 


If you and your team are spinning your wheels trying to improve an issue but no effective solutions are being made, it might be time to hunker down and problem solve. 


But how? Where do you begin? 


Team problem-solving may seem like a simple concept. All you have to do is sit down and have everyone work things out, right?


But the truth is that really exploring why a problem keeps blocking your team’s progress can be tricky. There are several effective root cause analysis activities you can use to dig into these pesky issues, like Fishbone or 5 Whys. 


Regardless of the format you use, you’re going to need a solid problem statement. In fact, your problem statement is the foundation of your entire discussion.


Yikes. That’s a lot of pressure. 😖


But you’ve got this! And we’re here to help!  There are a few key steps you can take to make your problem statement great and set your team up for a productive and successful problem-solving process.


Let’s dig in. 👇

What is a problem statement?

A problem statement is a phrase that summarizes your team’s pain points. It’s important to find a balance with your problem statement - you want it to be descriptive, but not too descriptive. 


If your problem statement is too narrow, you’ll rush to find alternative solutions too soon. If it's too broad, you might struggle to come up with specific causes later on. But when you find the right mix, your problem statement can help you examine a variety of causes and get to the real root of complex situations. 

How do you write a good problem statement?

The best piece of advice we can offer? Don’t overthink it. Your problem statement should be simple. 


Although it’s tempting to dive into the details of your current situation right away, you don’t want to limit the conversation before it even begins. Take your time. There are some benchmark criteria to consider when formulating your problem statement (Retrium has these preloaded for you).


Your ideal problem statement should: 


  • be understood by everyone on the team. 
  • span many issues of concern. 
  • contain no potential solution. 
  • be something that the team has energy around analyzing. 
  • be able to be followed by “because”.
  • be good enough for now.


What’s an example of a good problem statement? It can be as simple and concise as “the project ran over budget.” 


Having a problem statement that meets these criteria sets you and your team up for success. It has the ability to prompt a productive conversation without any restrictions. 


For example, let's say you wrote “the project ran over budget due to understaffing.” Then the rest of the retro would only focus on staffing issues...when the project could have run over budget for lots of other reasons.


That’s it! You’ve now created a meaningful problem statement for your team to explore.


Now it’s time to challenge your problem statement. 


Pro tip: not everyone on the team has to agree on the problem statement, but everyone does need to understand it. That shared understanding is going to be the foundation for the rest of your discussion. Take some time to define your problem statement and make sure that everyone on the team is on the same page. Just remember - don’t get ahead of yourself! At this stage, you’re only identifying the problem, not brainstorming viable solutions yet!

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The rule of “because”

You’ll notice that one of the criteria for a successful problem statement is that it can be followed by “because.” Formatting a problem statement this way makes it easier for everyone on the team to contribute potential causes for your current situation. For example: “the project ran over budget because...of scope creep.” 


Formatting your problem statement this way opens up the entire conversation! Prompting the team to add “because” to your problem statement and complete the sentence challenges everyone to fully explore the issue at hand to find as many potential causes as possible. 


A great problem statement will help people think beyond their day-to-day experience and focus on the big picture. Once your team has come up with an understood problem statement, your root cause analysis discussions will be focused and productive.  Kind of like a delicious cake under the icing, you will have a solid foundation for ideas to flourish, and the team will feel more aligned in their efforts to continuously improve together. 🎂

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