problem definition

By Jennifer Turvey, Improvement Practitioner and Coach

A Solid Foundation

The coach’s task during the problem definition phase is to support the problem-solver in transforming an apparent problem into the solid foundation of a well-planned project.

If this foundation is shoddy, has holes, or is only partially complete, the whole project can topple. Building it is hard work, requiring observation, research, sleuthing, and complex thinking.

And it’s a journey filled with temptations to cut corners and jump to more glamorous phases of the project. The coach, who is an observer to problem-solver’s thinking process, must guide the problem-solver through and around this minefield of potential pitfalls.

Coaching Problem Statement

The Coach’s Job

There are four aspects of the coach’s job during the problem definition phase.

1. Avoiding Common Pitfalls

Any problem-solver setting up the problem definition phase for a Lean project will find themselves face-to-face with attractive shortcuts and appealing flights of fancy. Surrendering can send the project to the pit of death.

Tempting pitfalls presented the problem definition phase presents include:

  • Mistaking a cause or symptom for a problem. Also known as “the problem beneath the problem”
  • Not noticing the problem is part of a larger pattern
  • Not examining the situation with your own eyes
  • Neglecting to come up with a verified factual description
  • Jumping to conclusions about causes
  • Jumping to solutions and abandoning the problem definition phase altogether
  • Tying yourself to a course of action instead of staying open to possibility (also known as “dying on that hill”)
  • Blaming instead of finding the facts and describing the situation
  • Getting distracted by perfection and expectations

Knowing what to look out for can be a lifeline for a coaching conversation.

2. Keeping it calm

For an improvement practitioner, a problem to solve can be like the prospect of a birthday party for a one-year-old. We want to jump into the fray as soon as possible, meet with the team, get to Root Cause Analysis, begin knocking off the solutions, bring the project to a close and save a lot of people a lot of pain and suffering.

Plain and simple: The problem definition phase points toward excitement. It also requires care and attention. That’s why slowing the person down can be the biggest job for the coach — talking them down from the jump-to-solution tree, coaxing them off that hill they’re determined to die on.

3. Being a detective for shortcuts and skipped logic

The coach sits in the problem-solver’s cheering section, so to speak.

And from those seats, it’s possible to fall into unconscious bias and miss things. Things like focusing on a cause or a symptom instead of a problem, substituting anecdotal evidence for fact, making hasty generalizations.

Maintaining distance and thinking like an observer to the conversation can help the coach stay aware and steer clear of unconscious bias.

4. Using subject matter expertise to guide the conversation

Coaches support others in coming up with answers themselves instead of giving them information. But a Lean coach definitely relies on their knowledge to guide the conversation. There are two sets of knowledge in play here.

One is Lean problem-solving expertise, allowing the coach to have a knowledgeable conversation with the problem-solver and guide them in an informed way.

The second is pitfalls expertise, allowing the coach to help the person navigate tempting shortcuts and appealing flights of fancy. This knowledge is not as technical, but the coach still has to come prepared with it.

The Open Question
Problem Statement Challenges

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” – Albert Einstein

Sample Questions

Here are some sample questions to help guide the coaching conversation during the problem definition phase.

The goal of this conversation is to help the person arrive at:

  1. A well-defined problem based in observation
  2. A concise and factual problem statement
  3. An accurate current situation
  4. An exciting desired situation that doesn’t promise too much

Problem Statement
Selecting a problem and determining that it’s worth solving is an important first step toward crafting a problem statement. But even if the problem-solver has been discussing that problem for weeks, they probably have only a general idea of what it involves. It’s tempting to think the work is already done.

While focusing on careful thinking and analysis, this conversation also focuses on curbing the urge to cut corners or jump into solution-thinking.

The problem:

  • How did you find this problem?
  • How do you know there’s a problem?
  • Have you visited the location where the problem exists?
  • How do you know it’s not a symptom or a cause of a larger problem that should be solved instead?
  • Is it a one-time problem or a pattern?
  • What are its boundaries?
  • What’s its impact?
  • What would happen if we didn’t solve it? Who would notice?

The problem statement:

  • How did you choose to include what you included?
  • What else might need to be included?
  • What might not belong here?
  • How could it be more precise or specific?

Articulating the Current and Desired Situations

You’ve moved beyond problem definition, but more observation and analysis lies ahead. Challenges to look out for include cutting corners on observation and analysis, jumping to solutions, assigning causes, and blaming. Add to those the risk of perfectionism and the desire to please everyone.

Current Situation

Tell me about:

  • Who is responsible for the problem?
  • Who owns the process connected to the problem?
  • Who has the opportunity to address it?
  • What’s the business context?
  • What are the obstacles to change associated with this problem?

Desired Situation

Please explain:

  • What will customers experience?
  • What will processes feel like?
  • What will you measure?
  • What behaviors will you drive?
  • What are the business and/or stakeholder expectations related to the problem?
  • What are the requirements related to the desired situation?
  • What will the target performance be?
  • Is there a benchmark that can be used to set the performance target?
  • What best practices exist?

Next steps

Now that the coach has walked the problem-solver through all this analysis, it’s time to help them gather their thoughts and determine how far they have or haven’t come.

  • How has your view of the problem changed?
  • How does that impact your problem statement?
  • How has your view of the current situation changed?
  • How has your view of the desired situation changed?
  • What additional considerations are needed to accurately, completely, and engagingly articulate the situation?
Short Open Questions


Problems don’t come predefined, and moving from an apparent problem to a well-articulated problem definition phase can be challenging.

The process involves complex thinking and methodical reasoning, and there’s temptation to jump to a more glamorous stage in the project.

In supporting a problem-solver through this journey, the Lean coach uses an understanding of these challenges to guide the coaching conversation while maintaining objectivity necessary to steer clear of unconscious bias.

Asking Open Questions

About Jennifer Turvey

Jenn is completing a one-year professional coaching certification. She currently coaches clients and works as a freelance writer and instructional designer.

She has her Lean and Six Sigma Green Belt and previously worked as an improvement and operational planning practitioner for the State of Colorado.

Jenn studied spiritual and religious experience in her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, and is a perpetual student of human development and personal growth.

She enjoys snowshoeing, eating, homebrewing, and drinking a good beer while reading a good book.

Jenn Turvey

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