How to Write a Six Sigma Problem Statement

How to Write a Six Sigma Problem Statement

Last updated on 06th Oct 2020, Artciles, Blog

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What Is a Problem Statement?

Adapted from an article by Alan Bryman in the International Journal of Social Research Methodology: A problem is a statement about an area of concern, a condition to be improved upon, a difficulty to be eliminated, or a troubling question that exists in theory or in practice that points to the need for meaningful understanding and deliberate investigation.

Why Is It So Hard to Write an Effective Problem Statement?

One of the challenges in writing a great problem statement is the distractions that can come from a variety of sources.

  • Symptoms associated with the problem add to the confusion when trying to describe a problem. For example, arriving at the physician’s office and stating, “Doctor, I am experiencing pain in the back of my thigh down to the lower part of my leg! I need you to ‘fix’ my leg!” It is only after a thoughtful evaluation that the doctor concludes that your problem lies with your sciatic nerve and originates in your lower back.
  • Solutions are often an early consideration when wrestling with a problem. When one is faced with a problem, alleviating that pain as quickly as possible is a natural, almost reflexive, action. It is, however, extremely important to avoid jumping to solutions until a profound understanding of the current state is achieved.
  • The search for causes of your pain is a natural reaction that also needs to be avoided when first describing a problem. Establishing root cause will be a part of the ensuing investigative procedure but should be reserved for the appropriate time in the lifecycle of the problem-solving method.
  • Blame is also a natural reflex when one is afflicted with a problem. A quote attributed to John Burroughs, American naturalist and nature essayist, may be all that needs to be said on this subject: “You can get discouraged many times, but you are not a failure until you begin to blame somebody else and stop trying.”
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What should a problem statement include?

A Six Sigma problem statement should be concise, specific, and fact-based. General and/or long-winded statements won’t focus on the key issue, and anything not backed up by verifiable data is opinion, prone to bias, and able to misdirect an investigation.

Problem statements should focus on a single issue. Start with the precise location where the problem is happening and the specific process involved. Supporting facts may include how often, how many, how long, plus recorded data that helps illustrate the issue. In addition, include information that shows the financial impact the issue is having on the organization.

What Is in a Problem Statement?

A problem statement should describe an undesirable gap between the current-state level of performance and the desired future-state level of performance. A problem statement should include absolute or relative measures of the problem that quantify that gap, but should not include possible causes or solutions!


Key elements of an effective problem statement include:

  • Gap: Identify the gap (pain) that exists today.
  • Timeframe, location and trend: Describe when and where the problem was first observed and what kind of trend it is following.
  • Impact: Quantify the gap (cost, time, quality, environmental, personal, etc.)
  • Importance: To the organization, the individual, etc. to better understand the urgency.

What Method Can I Employ to Author a Great Problem Statement?

The ability to articulate an effective problem statement is not simply a business skill – it is a life skill. How can children, youth and adults begin to solve problems if they haven’t been able to adequately describe them? This holds true for continuous improvement specialists.

The 5W2H (what, when, where, why, who, how, how much) method is deceptively simple. Ask the right questions in the right order and let the answers lead you to a great problem statement.

Example of Developing a Problem Statement

Let’s walk through the 5W2H method for manufacturing and call center examples.

Question 1: What is the problem that needs to be solved?

  • Manufacturer: Window frames and parts are ending up in the assembly department missing required weep holes or slots.
  • Call center: The assessment call is too complex, time consuming and administratively heavy, resulting in a diminished experience for the client as well as the staff member performing the work.

Question 2: Why is it a problem? (highlight the pain)

  • Manufacturer: If identified (visual inspection), the affected parts must be sent back for rework, thereby increasing the overall cost of manufacturing, creating higher inventory levels (WIP) and increasing risk since some of the defects may not be detected until later in the process, or worse, they may end up being incorrectly shipped to the job sites.
  • Call center: This results in higher variability and length of call handling time, clients having to repeat their “story” as the move through the assessment and downstream case worker (meeting) process, clients providing more information than may be required, increased workload for the assessment worker and increased wait times in the (telephone) queue. The overall impact is reduced service levels as well as diminished client and assessment worker experience.

Question 3: Where is the problem observed? (location, products)

  • Manufacturer: This problem is observed in the assembly department, downstream departments as well as ultimately in the field with customer complaints and costly field repairs and replacements.
  • Call center: This problem is observed in all assessment calls but will vary in magnitude depending on the client (needs and circumstance), assessment worker (experience) and other factors that contribute to variation in the handling of assessment calls.
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Question 4: Who is impacted? (customers, businesses, departments)

  • Manufacturer: This problem affects the assembly department that is tasked with trying to inspect for the error and react accordingly, rework occurring in the department/work cell responsible for weep holes and slots, the company as a whole in terms of cost, brand and reputation, and, most importantly, the customer who is affected by this problem if it makes it to the field.
  • Call center: This affects the client associated with the call, clients waiting in the queue, client’s families, and the organization and employers in the community being served.

Question 5: When was the problem first observed?

  • Manufacturer: This has been an ongoing issue going back as far as memory serves in the long-term employees, but with increased volume and more customization and higher complexity in design, the impact and severity of this problem has increased rapidly over the last two years.
  • Call center: This is a latent problem that has always existed but has become more evident with recent changes, including changes in funding, legislation, demand for services, client demographics and recent integration efforts in the organization as part of their ongoing commitment to continuous improvement of service pathways and client experience.

Question 6: How is the problem observed? (symptoms)

  • Manufacturer: Customer (in-field installation and service) complaints, increased warranty costs, manufacturing non-conformance reports (NCR), complaints from assembly department team and increased costs in fabrication.
  • Call center: This problem is observed in the variation in call-handling times, wait times in the telephone queue, call abandon rates, increased stress in front-line staff (workload and client anxiety/dissatisfaction) and ambiguity in call handling protocols.

Question 7: How often is the problem observed? (error rate, magnitude, trend)

  • Manufacturer: There is an observed 62,000 parts per million (PPM) for this specific defect, taking into consideration rework completed in-house and observed defects in the field. The PPM is derived from the number of weeping holes and slots required per unit assembly versus the actual number of deficiencies overall observed for the same number of units.
  • Call center: This is a daily operational occurrence but increases in call complexity related to changes in the knowledge base – multiple programs and changes in the environment (client demographics and needs/circumstances, legislation, etc.) – have resulted in an increase in severity and stress on the system.
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Acknowledging the challenges

One of the hardest things to do is to focus solely on the issue and not be distracted by side issues. It can be tempting to assign blame, for example, but that suggests you are no longer open-minded when it comes to seeking out the root cause.

You might feel that, having pulled together all the information, you have a sufficiently clear understanding of the problem to know what needs to be done to fix it. However, you must resist the temptation to suggest a solution at this stage, as an investigation is likely to uncover additional information.

An effective problem statement defines the issue and conveys a sense of urgency. It sets out only the facts; the ensuing investigation identifies the root cause, which will lead to an appropriate solution.

The Six Sigma Project Charter

A problem statement is the first of the six elements comprising a broader Six Sigma Project Charter. The six are:

  • The problem statement, which defines an issue and how it is affecting the organization.
  • The goal statement, which should be in line with the problem you seek to solve, and which should be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.
  • The business case, which sets out why a project is important to an organization and deserves its support.
  • The scope statement, which defines the limits of the project and shows both what should be included and what should be excluded.
  • The project milestones, outlining the key activities that need to be completed and the projected dates of completion.
  • A list of the team members that will be working on the project, which will depend on the problem that needs solving and project scope.

Setting the project statement in this context gives the bigger overall picture and aids understanding. It helps avoid some of the common pitfalls described above.

Problem statement acts as a driving factor in many projects including Lean Six Sigma Projects.  A Lean Six Sigma project involves the following steps:

  • Define
  • Measure
  • Analyze
  • Improve
  • Control

The five phases of the project are interconnected, following the waterfall model.

The Waterfall model is segmented into different stages of a project. Each phase relies on the results from the earlier process. As mentioned above, the driving force of a project is the problem statement.



At this stage, the problem is defined. The defined problem is framed in the form of a declaration called the problem statement. Consider the drink manufacturer mentioned earlier. The organization has a problem, and it was cited. Now, let’s see how the problem statement looks; 

“The company’s packing process should aim to reduce bottle disintegration for the process to be smooth and efficient.”



The next step in action is measuring the current performance or process. At this point, the problem mentioned earlier is quantified by:

  • Measuring the ongoing processor performance.
  • Identifying the units of measurement.
  • Develop the data collection plan.
  • Describe the problem based on data collected.

The problem statement made at the “define” stage is the basis for all of these measurements.

“There is a daily average of 150 broken bottles in the plant. The cleaning and replacement costs for a broken bottle are Rs.5.00. The total bottle spending per month is Rs.22,500 and Rs.270,000 per year.”



The problem statement clearly shows that the problem is that the bottles are broken. Thus, in the context of analysis, various techniques and instruments have been used to identify the exact problem which causes the breakage of bottles. The “Analyse” stage is aimed at identifying the problem.

“The problem may be the quality of the bottles, variations in the pressure during the filling and sealing, the shape and quality of the bottle caps, and changes in the process temperature.”



We now know the cause of the problem and the actual problem. The next step is the “improve” phase. Here, the implementation and verification of the solution occur.

“After all problem factors are determined by the impact they have had in the decreasing order, and solutions have been found to remove them.”



The purpose of the six sigma control stage is to verify that the solution implemented at the “improve” phase is adequate; using various tools.

“To keep up the solutions that have been implemented in the “improve” phase and check whether they eliminate or reduce the problem factors.”

Lean means waste disposal, on the other hand. A total of seven kinds of waste are categorized using the acronym TIMWOOD.

They are:

T- Transportation

I – Inventory

M- Motion

W- Waiting

O- Over Processing

O- Over Production

D- Defects

In Lean Six Sigma, a problem statement is of great importance when it emphasizes the disposal of waste. If a problem statement is misleading, the whole DMAIC method leads to over-processing and faults. And this makes no meaning for lean six sigma. Therefore, the most crucial thing in the entire project is the problem statement.

In any industry, it is regarded as a project when implementing Six Sigma or Lean Six sigma. There will be a problem in any project; hence, the project must start to find a solution. Implementation of Six Sigma or Lean Six Sigma on its own could be a project. Many factors can be involved in the success or failure of a project. Method, engagement, and interpretation of the problem statement can be the significant factors.

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To wrap it up

A problem statement describes the problem faced by an organization and also identifies what the solution would look like. It can also establish a foundation for building compelling business cases and proving the necessity for specific projects.

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