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How to define a problem statement?

July 26, 2019

In the realm of problem-solving, understanding how to define a problem statement is paramount. Consider a scenario where a father consistently helps his son with physics assignments, leading to high grades and admiration. While grades are important, they may not always signify true understanding. This example highlights the critical importance of defining the right problem before seeking a solution. Failure to do so can lead to wasted time and missed opportunities for professional growth. Recognizing the distinction between a problem and its symptoms is key. A problem is something that demands attention and requires resolution, while a symptom of failure is something observable but unchangeable. Properly defining a problem statement involves identifying what needs to be done in response to a failure and listing the specific problems that must be addressed. This process ensures focus and clarity, guiding individuals and teams towards effective solutions.

In this post, we are not trying to teach good parenting, but rather to emphasize the importance of defining the correct problem before jumping into any solution. In our world, in the world of problem-solving, we refer to it as defining the problem statement.

The phase of defining the problem statement is critical, since, as we showed in our life example, without investing the time into finding and defining the correct problem will result in a waste of time and, in many cases, loss of professional competence.

I am sure you can come up with many examples when people are trying to solve the wrong problem.

Now, let’s dive into the topic of our discussion

How to define a correct problem statement?

We briefly discussed problem statement aspects in one of our blogs “A problem solver is the main roadblock in problem-solving processes.”
For a matter of this discussion, a typical mistake that I want to highlight is the fact that people treat failure and its symptoms as the problem.

What problem is? How to recognize failure and problem?

The best definition we have found is an explanation provided by Cambridge Dictionary (

A problem is a situation, person, or thing that needs attention and needs to be dealt with or solved.

Plain and simple definition!
A problem is someone or something that makes you change your plans, or makes take actions that you did not plan taking, a problem prevents you from doing that you planned to.  
Another attribute of a problem is that the problem can be solved, while the symptom of a failure cannot.
Indeed, in the case of a punctured tire, you can prevent air loss, but you cannot return the tire to an initial condition. A broken leg cannot be fixed, you can solve the problem of the inability to walk and run, but you cannot fix the broken leg.

Discover: The distinction between guessing and thinking as cognitive processes

How to define a problem statement

A single failure can generate a wide variety of problems

Below is an example of a failure that results in several problems.

The problem is not what you see, hear or feel; the problem is what you should do as a result of what you see, hear or feel.

Let’s go through some additional examples:

Over and over again, failure is what you can observe, but cannot change. A failure generates problems that you can solve.  

Use the table above to define a problem statement. Write on the left field everything that has happened, and you cannot change, and describe the failure in much detail. Think and write what should be done due to the failure, and list the problems that bother you, and you have to solve.

To make things easier and for you to be more organized, use a table similar to the example above, where:

  • Left column – defines a failure.
    Write everything that has happened and you cannot change. Describe the failure in details.
  • Right column – holds a list of problems for you to solve.
    Write down what should be done as a result of the failure. List the problems that bother you and you have to solve.
What happened?
What do you observe?
Describe what should be done.
List the problems that bother you:
– Problem A
– Problem B
– etc…

Always rank the problems using one of the Inventive thinking tools:
Urgency – Importance Matrix (UIM) or Round – Robin Ranking.

Searching for the right problem is also a problem-solving tool because it helps you to be focused on the problem.


Below is a trivial quiz. But, before you run into finding a solution, please try to define a problem:

Image source:

Since you define the correct problem the solution becomes obvious.

Correct problem definition is an inventive thinking tool allowing to solve problems.

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Leave A Comment

  • Vern Musgraves
    December 30, 2019

    I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s both equally educative and interesting, and let me tell you, you have hit the nail on the head. The issue is something too few folks are speaking intelligently about. I’m very happy that I came across this during my hunt for something regarding this.

    • Anatoly
      December 30, 2019

      Many thanks. I have recently got another excellent example. One big company revealed three lots of the product with “0” yield. Sometimes happened. They found that the defect could be related to certain equipment, therefore, another 3 lots are at risk to get “0” yield as well. What was the decision? The decision was to scrap the lots before they arrive at the end of line test. Why? Very simple. The purpose was not to impact the end of line indicators. So, the decision is right, because the problem statement was “Possible impact of the indicators”.

  • Urls
    February 4, 2021

    You are a very bright person!


  • neurontnkef
    January 13, 2023

    I am not sure where you’re getting your info, but great topic.

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