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How to define the problem

Kim Smiley



The first step of an investigation is to define the problem. It may seem like this should be a simple task, but it can deceptively difficult to get a team of people to agree on what exactly is "the problem". It can be a balancing act to find enough time and energy to conduct an effective root cause analysis while also being efficient so spending a lot of time on the problem definition step can be a hindrance in an investigation.

So how do you efficiently and effectively define a problem?

Skip the paragraphs

Many organizations write problem statements in paragraph form. Often it isn't clear exactly what information should be included so it takes the investigation team time to determine what to put in their problem statement. Depending on the personalities involved, there can also be a lot of debate on wording and what vocabulary to use.

Cause Mapping utilizes an Outline to define problems, as shown below. The information that should be documented is clearly listed (it can be used like a checklist). There is no need to write full sentences or debate word choice. Anyone reading the Outline can quickly understand what happened, when and where as well as other background information for the incident because it is always in the same location. 


(You can download the Cause Mapping Excel template for free on our website. The Problem worksheet in the template has the blank Outline.)

Don’t debate what the problem is

One of the benefits of using the Outline is that you can side step any debate over what is “the problem”. The trick here is that it is okay to write more than one thing in the space next to Problem(s) on the Outline. If somebody says the problem is that there was a release of hazardous material, write it in the space. If another team member says that actually, the real problem is that production was shut down for 5 days, you say okay and add it as well.  By listing all the suggested “problems”, disagreements are avoided, allowing the investigation to progress. There is no need to select and debate the single problem because a thorough investigation will end up examining all the “problems”.

Focus on the goals

The bottom of the Outline is used to list how the problem impacts the organization’s goals. As mentioned above, people will often debate what “the problem” is but there is rarely debate about how the problem impacts the goals.  For example, a release of hazardous material is clearly an impact to the environmental goal while a delay in production is an impact to the Production/schedule goal. 

Document extra information

While defining the problem, people may offer information that is relevant to the investigation, but it doesn’t fit on the Outline. Generally, the best way to keep the investigation moving forward is to document the information with as little discussion as possible and agree to come back to it at the relevant time.  If too much time is spent debating or discussing the information, it can easily distract the investigation team and bog down the process. If you are using the Cause Mapping Excel template, document the provided information in a cause box on the Cause Mapping page so that information isn’t lost.

Capture costs

It’s also important to quantify the problem (the specific incident being investigated and any similar instances). The Outline has a place to capture costs as well as the frequency of similar issues. Understanding how often similar problems are occurring and the cost associated with each incident can help determine how many resources should go towards developing solution(s).  If it was a unique, one-time event, the solutions may look different than something that is reoccurring more frequently (costing more money). 

Benefits of a well-defined problem

Without a well-defined problem, an investigation lacks focus and can drift off course. Resources are wasted and people may become frustrated. Having the basic background information documented in a standard way also helps people reviewing the investigation to quickly locate information. Using a structured problem Outline helps a team avoid unproductive debate and quickly understand the total impact of a problem.  

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