problem definition

By Jennifer Turvey, Improvement Practitioner and Coach

Juggling in a Minefield

Selecting a problem and determining it’s worth solving is an important first step. But even if you’ve been discussing that problem for weeks, you probably have only a general idea of what it involves.Getting to a definition based in fact requires observation, research, and sleuthing.

It’s not glamorous. It’s a journey filled with temptations, traps, and pitfalls.

A coach helping a new problem through this process must them through and around this minefield.

And their work goes beyond basic coaching techniques. It can be little like juggling.

In addition to helping you juggle, this article will give you a map of the minefield, and set of questions to get you started on the journey.

Coaching Problem Statement

The Pitfalls

Any problem solver defining a problem for their Lean project will find themselves coming face-to-face with traps and pitfalls.

Some of the most common ones:

  • Neglecting to examine the situation with your own eyes
  • Substituting anecdotes for a verified factual description of the context surrounding the problem
  • Jumping to conclusions about the problem and its causes
  • Tying yourself to a course of action instead of staying open to possibility (also known as “dying on that hill”)
  • Jumping to solutions and abandoning problem-definition altogether
  • Mistaking a cause or a symptom for a problem. Also known as “the problem beneath the problem”

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

Problem Statement Challenges

The Coach’s Job

Helping a new problem solver define a problem they’ve identified takes the coach beyond basic skills like listening, and ask instead of tell. It can be little like juggling.Here’s what I mean:

1. Keeping it calm

For an improvement practitioner, a problem to solve is like the prospect of a birthday party for a one year old.

We want to jump into the fray as soon as possible, get to the root cause, knock off the solutions bring the project to a close, and celebrate.

But first, define the problem.

“What? Why?” asks the problem-solver, “I’ve done most of that already!”

2. Ensuring a methodical thought process

Excitement and impatience circle the coaching conversation like a couple of jackals waiting for the perfect moment to pounce and devour everything the coach and the problem solver have worked so hard to put together.

Slowing the person down is often the biggest job facing the coach – talking them down from the jump-to-solution tree or coaxing them off that hill they’re determined to die on.

3. Using subject matter expertise to guide the conversation

This conversation operates on two levels.

On the surface, the coach helps the problem solver transform an apparent problem into an actual problem.

Under the surface, they are continually analyzing the situation and the available evidence based on their understanding of problem definition and knowledge of its pitfalls.

4. 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 substituting anecdotal evidence for fact, making hasty generalizations, or substituting a symptom for the real problem.

And let’s be clear: defining-a problem for a Lean project requires some complex thinking for both the coach and the problem-solver.
Maintaining distance from the conversation and thinking like an observer to it can help the coach stay aware and steer clear of unconscious bias.

The Open Question

“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


Here are some sample questions for a coach to support a problem-solver’s thinking process. Each is likely lead to more questions, which means you’ll naturally be coming up with additional questions on your own.

Pitfall: Not adequately verifying the problem
Coach’s goal: Probe context

  • How did you find this problem?
  • How do you know there’s a problem?
  • Have you visited the location where the problem exists?

Pitfall: Not learning enough about who’s involved
Coach’s goal: Probe who the actors are

  • Who is responsible for the problem?
  • Who owns the process connected to the problem?
  • Who has the opportunity to address it?

Pitfall: Settling on a problem no one feels or sees
Coach’s Goal: Probe how the problem shows up as pain in the business

  • What’s the business context?
  • How did you decide to take on this problem?
  • What would happen if we didn’t solve it and who would notice?

Pitfall: Not taking cause-and-effect far enough
Coach’s Goal: Probe with why?

  • Is this a symptom or a cause of a larger problem that should be solved instead?

Pitfall: Not examining the problem carefully enough
Coach’s goal: Probe the shape and characteristics of the problem

  • What are its boundaries?
  • What’s its impact?
  • When does the problem occur?
  • Is it a one-time problem or a pattern?
  • What are the obstacles to change associated with this problem?

Next steps
Now that you’ve 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.

  • Has your view of the problem changed?
  • How does that impact your definition?
Short Open Questions


Problems don’t come predefined, and moving from an apparent problem to a well-defined one 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, a coach uses an understanding of these challenges to guide the conversation while maintaining the 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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