Creating a problem statement with the 5W1H method

the 5W1H method has many alternative names, such as the six W's, the five W's, or the Five W's and How method. In the end, it is a method for creating a comprehensive problem statement that takes into account all the aspects. this is done by asking six questions beginning with What, Who, When, Where, Why, and How. The questions should always be asked taking the customer's viewpoint into account. There is no fixed set of questions. You have to place yourself in the mind of a journalist. When a journalist writes an article he is also looking to answer these questions, what has happened, where did it happen, .... the answers to all these questions can be found back in a good article. You have to do the same and write down the full story of the problem.

The answers to these questions will give you the basic information which is needed to create a good problem statement. If the questions are answered right they give you an understanding of the current situation which can be used further in the problem-solving process. Just like with most tools, also here the rule applies: using the 5W1H method in a team will give you more added value than using the method on your own.

5W1H questions examples

Like already mentioned there is no fixed set of questions. Hereunder you can find some examples which will help you on the way:

  • What is the problem? What is affected? What is the issue that is impacting the customer?  What is the impact to the customer when the problem occurs?  What has happened? What will happen if we don't solve the problem? What was the process where the problem occurred?
  • Where is the problem happening? Where do the customers encounter the problem with the process?
  • When does the problem occur? When in the process does the customer experience the problem? When was it detected for the first time?
  • How many times does the problem occur? How many times does is the customer affected? How much is affected? How did the problem manifest? How severe is the problem? how much is the problem costing us?
  • Why is it a problem for the customer? Why do we need to solve the problem?
  • Who has detected the problem? Who is affected by the problem (what customer)?

Do not mix the Why with the Why from the 5Why method. with the 5W1H method, we want to understand why we should care about this problem. Why we need to solve the problem. We are focusing on creating a problem statement, not yet on solving the problem. With the Why in the 5 why method we want to understand why it is happening in order to solve the problem defined with the 5W1H method.

The answers should be quantified and as specific as possible. for example:

  • When did the problem occurs:  the problem occurring in the morning or the problem occurs between 6:00 and 8:00.
  • How often did the problem occurs: Almost all the time or 95% of the time.

The final problem statement should be a brief, comprehensive description of the problem which takes into account all the aspects uncovered by asking the 5W1H questions.

Good vs bad problem statement example

you have written a good problem statement when if you show the final problem statement to an outsider he is able to answer the 5W1H questions which have been used to compile the problem statement on his own. Remember a problem well stated is a problem half solved.

Finally lets look at an example:

Our down-town pizza delivery services delivered too many pizzas too late which results in extra cost.

Restaurant Chain Owner

  • What was the problem the customer was facing: too late delivery
  • When did the problem occur: unknow
  • Where did the problem occur: down-town
  • Why do we need to solve it: probably the extra cost
  • Who is affected by the problem: end customers, but which ones
  • How many time did the problem occur: unknown

Lets look again to the problem statement when we applied the 5W1H method well.

Last year our down-town pizza delivery service has delivered 532 pizzas too late. This is 3.2% percentage of our total delivered pizzas and well above the target of 1%. This gap cost us 4873$ due to our "if not delivered in 15 min, it is free" policy.  95% percentage of the too late delivered pizza's can from orders which had more than 3 pizzas.

Restaurant Chain Owner

  • What was the problem the customer was facing: too late delivery
  • When did the problem occur: last year
  • Where did the problem occur: down-town
  • Why do we need to solve it: the gap between target and actual late delivery percentage cost us 4873$ due to our "if not delivered in 15 min, it is free" policy
  • Who is affected by the problem: 95% of end customers who ordered more than 3 pizzas, 5% of end customers who order less than 3 pizzas.
  • How many time did the problem occur: 3.2% of all delivered pizza's, 532 pizzas in total

Do you see how the second problem statement gives a more solid base to solve the problem.

This article was updated on November 30, 2022