How to describe a problem so that everyone understands it

An important first step in the problem solving process is knowing how to describe a problem so that everyone understands it and collaborates in solving it.

Solving problems is a common activity in every business. In some areas, such as Quality, it receives special treatment with root cause identification methods and corrective actions. However, we often do not give due attention to an important step in the problem solving process: the formulation of an adequate description.

An adequate description will significantly clarify the problem, as well as identify its severity, location and financial impact. It also serves as a great communication tool, helping you gain the support of other people. When problems are adequately described, people perceive and understand what you are trying to accomplish.

How to describe a problem?

The problem description should have a concise description of the facts that need to be addressed. In addition, it must respond to the 5 Whys of the 5W2H methodology: Who, Where, What, When and Why. Note that H (“how?”) is not included. This is because this is the question that the investigative efforts will arrive at from the root cause of the problem. After determining the facts associated with the problem, the analysis and resolution of the problem can be carried out in less time and with lower costs.

The difficulty in describing a problem is that people often assume that everyone else knows what the problem is. Inevitably, this leads to a poorly crafted or even incorrect description of a problem.

When it is assumed that the cause of the problem is already known, the result in one of two possible versions of the problem description:

  • In one case, the description of the problem is extremely weak in information and details, for example: “Our department has received customer complaints.”
  • At the other extreme, it may lead to a detailed, but completely incorrect description of the problem, or one that already assumes a solution, for example: “We need to train employees again because they are taking too long, resulting in customer complaints about the slowness of our department.”

As you can see, the two problem descriptions are inadequate to justify investing valuable resources in solving the problem.

And in practice? Where do I start?

Starting from an outline is a great way. The outline can be represented as a problem description matrix that includes tips for identifying the 5 Whys (see the table below).

The data needed to fill in the matrix can be gathered through targeted interviews, historical data or preliminary analyses that can be done quickly and at low cost.

How to describe a problem

This matrix should then be used to write the detailed description of the problem: “Our order processing department saw a 20% increase in average monthly complaints over the last three months after implementing the new tool to manage work orders for all the organizational departments.”

This is an objective description, with relevant data, that will certainly help the team in the next steps to investigate the causes and define possible actions so that the complaint rate decreases again.

More tips for describing a problem

To help you with this, have a look at the following summary of good practices for describing a problem.

1. Write the problem description with the reader in mind

Keep in mind that you will probably have to convince management to provide resources to solve the problem and recruit staff members to help you. You do not want to spend your precious time explaining over and over what you are trying to accomplish.

2. Keep the problem description concise and include, at least:

  • A brief description of the problem;
  • Where the problem is occurring;
  • The length of time the problem has been occurring;
  • The size or magnitude of the problem.

3. Be careful not to make the problem description too simple

A natural tendency is make a problem description too simplistic because you are already familiar with it. Others need to understand the context and significance in order to get their support for solving the problem.

4. Be careful with the solution

Do not include any suggestion or speculation about the cause of the problem or what actions should be taken to solve the problem. Never try to solve the problem or direct the solution in this step.

5. Facilitate interpretation

Remove information that may lead to any interpretive bias. Intuition is not welcome in this step.

6. Include numbers whenever possible

Include some quantification of the magnitude of the problem to help readers arrive at a better decision.


A problem management software is crucial to guide people while describing and correcting a problem.

SoftExpert Workflow offers all the tools needed to help organizations investigate errors, defects, failures, losses, outages and incidents in a wide variety of industries – from IT service management to product manufacturing.

Accelerate your company’s growth with SoftExpert solutions. They are designed to meet the new demands of the market in an agile way. Take the opportunity and request a demo.

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Tobias Schroeder


Tobias Schroeder

MBA in Strategic Management from UFPR. Business and market analyst at SoftExpert, a software provider for enterprise-wide business processes automation, improvement, compliance management and corporate governance.

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