The power of a problem series: Defining the problem

Feb 16, 2022

This is the third article of our six-part power of a problem series. Missed the last article? Read it here.

In our last blog post, we talked about how to recognize when something is a one-off occurrence or indicative of a bigger problem in a process. If you've identified that you have a deeper problem, you may be tempted to try to fix it immediately.

Identifying the problem is only the first step, and quickly firing off ill-considered solutions can create even more problems. Now is the time to slow down, take stock, and lead with curiosity so you can fully define the problem and its effects. In this week's post, we're going to share the types of questions we, as Lean specialists, use to help local governments define a problem.

Today's fictional scenario illustrates how asking open-ended questions can help you see the problem in a different light.

Fatima, Wellsville's finance director, recognized that the growing number of late payments and complaints were signaling a deeper problem in the accounts payable process. But before she could begin looking for a solution, her city manager, Ellen, advised her that she needed to define the problem first.

Grabbing a notepad, Fatima began to jot down what she had observed about the accounts payable process. As the list grew, she considered her team and wondered whether she should wait until after some upcoming retirements before initiating any process improvements. She wasn't sure some of her longtime employees would be open to change, and a new employee from the outside might bring fresh ideas. Ultimately, she realized that she couldn't delay digging into the accounts payable process.

The next day, Fatima asked both her chief accountant and the accounts payable clerk whether they had noticed any hiccups in the process. Their answers helped her see that there were multiple pain points in the payment path; she also learned about the stress delayed payments cause both employees and the city's vendors. Then she conferred with one of her fellow department heads and added his observations to her notes.

As Fatima perused her list, she had to stop herself from jumping to conclusions about what was causing the problem or how to fix it. Although the exercise was challenging, it left her with a better understanding of the problem. In turn, she grew more confident that she could explain her findings to others and gain their support to work on addressing the problem.

Using open-ended questions

Fatima took the time to ask herself, her staff and her colleagues in other departments a series of open-ended questions. The answers caused her to alter how she looked at the situation. Asking open-ended questions was important because it allowed Fatima and her team to recognize key facts around the current accounts payable process.

To help define the problem, ask:

  • What is the problem? Describe specific issues in neutral terms. Avoid placing blame on someone or a specific role in the organization.
  • Who experiences the problem? Not who caused it, but whom it affects.
  • Where is the problem happening? How was it detected or noticed?
  • Do you see the problem in multiple areas or is it concentrated in one area?
  • How often does the problem occur? Are there any patterns, cycles or seasons?
  • How large is the problem? Do we have any data to start measuring the problem?
  • How long has the problem existed? Has anything changed in your internal or external environment that has made the problem noticeably worse or better?
  • How has the problem affected your customers, employees and organization?
  • Are there any contracts, laws, or ordinances relevant to this process?
  • Could this situation create a legal liability for your organization?

Asking questions and initiating discussions builds momentum for addressing the problem. If everyone is aware of the problem, who could say that the status quo is okay?

The do's and don'ts

Here are some tips to keep in mind as you define your problem:


Do focus on collecting neutral, descriptive statements.

Do include the effect on external customers and partners, the organization as a whole, and the people doing the work.

Do consider which departments are connected to this process, and collect data from all points of view.

Do build a case that the problem is real, substantial and deserves attention.


Don't blame someone. Instead, focus on roles to keep attention on improving the process.

Don't let a solution masquerade as a problem statement. Any statement that identifies an absence, lack or insufficiency is really a solution in disguise.

Don't let the absence of statistical data override the irrefutable facts in front of you.

Don't dwell on the past. Ancient history isn't helpful—more recent context is.

Now that I've identified and defined the problem, what should I do next?

In some situations, measurement can be an important part of defining the problem because it can help you evaluate the dimensions of the issue: time, quantity, duration and so forth. In our next blog post, we will look at when measurement is and isn't essential, as well as offer tips on how to measure your problem at this early stage.