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Problem Statements – Five Why’s v. Five How’s

November 6th, 2012 2 comments

Problem statementUp and down the escalator you go through a store when shopping at the mall until you get to the level where your desired merchandise is listed on the map.  Such is the same for choosing a problem statement.

Usually, the first time you state a problem is just the beginning of finding the goal you really want to pursue.  So then, how to get to the right problem statement?  The first thing I’d recommend is to make sure your initial problem statement is neutral.  In other words, if as an example, you wish to improve field personnel billability in a services business, state the problem as the improving the billing of field personnel’s time.  Get rid of any buzzwords.

Then use the Five Why’s tool.  As you ask the Five Why’s, you naturally become broader in the problem statement. The advantage of broadening the question is that you create more options.  The risk when you do this is that you become as abstract as to pursue a problem for which you are resource constrained.  In other words, you simply can’t command the resources needed to solve that problem.  This is the classic case of “boiling the ocean”.

Now here is a twist you should try.  Go back to the original neutral problem statement and ask several How’s.  This has the opposite effect of the Five Why’s.  Instead of getting broader, it makes the problem statement more specific.  When you put together the statements for the Why’s and How’s you construct a hierarchy of possible problem statements.

Download Project Definition Powerpoint

a short Powerpoint on project selection and definition …

Why construct this hierarchy?  Well it gives you a range of alternatives and focuses you to think about the right choice.  You have many levels of specificity from which to choose.  So what is the right choice?  You want to choose a level that is high enough to leave you options which make a measureable impact on the problem area.  Yet, you need to stay low enough where you control, or have the ability to bring to bear, the resources needed to solve the problem.

Now these are just judgments so we recommend that when you apply those judgments, you stretch yourself. Go one level higher than you feel comfortable.  So I guess the recommendation is to get on the escalator and go up and down until you find a comfortable spot – then go up one!  If you wish to speak about this, I encourage you to reach out to me.


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