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How to Define a Problem using the 5W1H tool

an example of a table showing how to define a problem using 5w1h

A problem is “anything that happened and that was not expected to happen”, that is, anything that deviated from the standard.

The first step in Structured Problem Solving is to Define the problem. When a problem is defined it is important to be as specific as possible, as it will lead you to the cause and solution quicker. It might be tempting to state “The packing line is stuffed” but a better formulation would be “There are multiple minor stoppages on the line 3 filler, resulting in line efficiency dropping from a usual 96% to 60% in week 36”.

A good method to define a problem is called a 5W1H. This tool asks 5 questions beginning with ‘W’ – What, When, Where, Who, Which, and one ‘H’ How? The tool prompts the team to define the specific circumstance of the problem but also highlights circumstances where the problem does not occur.

What?

  • What was the problem? Be specific.

Where?

  • Where does the problem happen and where does it not happen?
  • Where is the problem located in relation to other things?

When?

  • When does it happen and when does it not happen?
  • What was happening at the time or immediately beforehand?

Who?

  • Who was involved?
  • To whom does it happen and with whom does it not happen?

Which?

  • Which way is the problem trending?

How?

  • How big is the problem?
  • What is the impact?

Is? or Is Not? Analysis

When you define a problem, it is equally important to note where the problem does NOT occur. For example, the problem is found on production line 1 but not on lines 2 and 3. This can provide valuable clues in finding possible causes and eliminating others.

Remember that a problem well-defined will be a problem well-solved. Don’t rush ahead with an incomplete problem definition. You need to be comfortable with slowing the thinking down, use the 5W1H process to ask again and again: “Is there anything else”?

Some common mistakes when you use 5W1H to define a problem:

  • The definition is too general: “We had some trouble with the steriliser today”.
  • Disguise the solution in the problem definition: “The articulator was left on which caused…”
  • The problem is stated to serve a hidden agenda: “Planning was late again…”

A table showing an example of 5W1H

Do you have a specific problem you like some assistance with? Feel free to contact one of our team to facilitate a problem-solving workshop.