Do you know the story behind the installation of mirrors in elevators or lifts? It’s believed that Japan was the first country to introduce mirrors in elevators for the sole purpose of accessibility. Wheelchair users could back up or exit the elevator without having to turn around. This seems like a perfectly sound reason, but there’s more to the story.

It turns out that as high-rise buildings mushroomed, people started using elevators more frequently. They were constantly complaining about how slowly they went up and down. Elevator companies thought that the real problem was that ‘elevators are functioning too slowly’. So they made changes to the elevators to improve their speed. But the complaints continued. 

After looking at the problem more closely,  the engineers realized that the problem wasn’t the speed of the elevators. They realized that people had nothing to do but stare at the walls when using elevators. This is why they were bored and impatient in elevators. The elevator companies began installing mirrors that distracted people and made the rides seem to go faster. The engineers identified the problem correctly and solved it smartly. This is why it’s important to know how to define problems in our daily lives.

The Meaning Of Problem Definition

Before we fast-forward to the definition of a problem, let’s look at the meaning of problem. Simply put, a problem arises when something comes in the way of achieving a goal and therefore needs to be resolved. Identifying problems is critical to success at work. There can be problems in organizations that hinder growth and success. Companies can also analyze problems their customers are facing and create products and services to solve them. 

Organizations often can’t crack the real problems at work because they identify the ‘symptoms’ and not the root cause of the problem. This is why you need to understand the meaning of problem definition.

A problem definition is the first step that clarifies the need to find a solution. To understand whether you have a problem, you should ask yourself some fundamental questions:

1. What Is The Scope Of The Problem?

Begin by stating your problem clearly and briefly. Define the scope of the problem and try to identify the impact it is having. Will there be consequences for leaving the problem unresolved? Most importantly, try to find out if the problem will have an impact on those who are involved.

2. What Are You Trying To Achieve?

Take time to understand what you’re trying to achieve. Knowing the desired outcome will help you get perspective on the problem you’re trying to solve. Let’s revisit the elevator problem, for example. The desired outcome for people was to have elevators that moved faster. On the other hand, the desired outcome for the engineers was to reduce the free time and present distractions.

3. Who Will Benefit And Why?

When you’re trying to solve a problem, make sure you know who you’re solving it for. If you have a hard time determining who your audience is, it may be an indicator that you don’t have a problem that needs solving. It’s a good idea to always define your audience in advance.

Defining A Problem At Work

Oftentimes, you’ll see businesses spend their time and resources solving problems that help them achieve their overall mission and goals. Organizations are always on the lookout for problem-solvers who can actively anticipate future problems and solve existing problems. They want employees who can make strategic decisions that’ll benefit the business objectives.

The ability to solve problems is an essential part of any employee’s skill set. Many jobs are centered on finding solutions. By following the steps of a powerful problem definition process, you can visualize a problem better because it helps provide different perspectives and broadens the context. You may find associated problems in the process.

Here are the important steps of a standard problem definition process:

1. Describe The Vision

Start by reflecting on the most ideal situation. Before you describe the problem, note down a few sentences that should explain what the situation would be if the problem didn’t exist. For example, take any busy airlines. The check-in protocols for such airlines are time-consuming because there are long queues. In an ideal scenario, either the queues would move faster or they would be shorter. You may address the problem through alternative methods like installing self-check-in kiosks at the airport.

2. Describe The Problem

If you can accurately describe the problem, half your work is done. Summarize the problem and highlight important facts at the beginning. For example, if there are long queues at the airport, the airline’s current check-in protocol is inefficient. Not only does it waste people’s time, but also creates an unfavorable brand image. It makes the company less competitive.

3. Describe The Costs Involved

Once the problem is defined, you should be able to explain why it’s a problem in monetary terms. For example, an airline transports about 50 passengers in a day and the current check-in protocol is at six minutes per passenger. This will result in a loss of about five hours per day and that’ll further amount to a loss of ₹100 per day. This process of analyzing the costs can help you determine whether you should invest in an online check-in portal.

Enhancing The Definition Of A Problem

The problem definition process may have helped you identify the appropriate meaning of a problem. However, there are ways to ensure that your problem definitions are tailored to your solutions. Below are some tips to help ensure this.

1. Be Concise 

While writing the problem definition or statement, make sure you keep it as clear as possible. It shouldn’t be unnecessarily lengthy and should be simple enough to be understood by anyone who reads it. Try not to get stuck in the finer details. Use language that’s simple and direct. The essence of the problem should be your focus.

2. Write For Others

Teams need to interpret the problem in the same way. For example, if you’re working on a group assignment, you can brainstorm the problem statements with your coworkers so that everybody’s on the same page.

3. Avoid Complicating The Definition

A problem definition should be written in a way that doesn’t confuse your readers. Even if you’re using technical terms or keywords that are specific to the problem, make sure you take time to elaborate on them.

Tools For Problem Definition

Helpful problem-solving techniques can help you arrive at the appropriate definition of a problem more efficiently. Root-Cause Analysis or RCA is one of the most preferred methods used in organizations. It’s a systematic process to identify the ‘root’ or underlying causes of a problem. It helps one understand why the problem occurred in the first place. Additionally, it helps one find ways to prevent the problem from repeating in the future. For example, if a new business strategy failed to make the desired impact, you should try to identify all the possible problem areas.

Two Popular Types Of RCA:

1. Fishbone Analysis

Also known as the cause-and-effect analysis or Fishbone diagram, it is named so because it resembles the skeleton of a fish. You start by placing the major challenge at the center, which becomes the ‘spine’ of the skeleton. Other causes and sub-causes branch out from the main spine. 

For example, a failed business strategy may have several related factors that can be grouped under ‘management’, ‘planning’, etc. You can further divide ‘management’ into ‘leadership’ and ‘teamwork’. The process of branching out continues until you identify the real issue.

2. Five Whys Analysis

The Five Whys Analysis is one of the most common methods of root-cause analysis. This technique helps you get to the bottom of a problem by helping you pinpoint which layer of the problem needs solving. You ask the question ‘why’ five times to unravel information at every layer and get to the core issue. 

For example, if your business strategy failed, you can begin by asking why it failed and continue to ask ‘why’ till you reach the real cause of the problem.


Critically analyzing problems can lead to breakthrough solutions. It can help you professionally and also aid your personal growth. Develop a critical approach to defining problems with Harappa Education’s Defining Problems course. This course will help you avoid jumping to conclusions by enabling you to diagnose a problem effectively. Start facing problems with confidence!

Explore our Harappa Diaries section to know more about the topic related to the Solve habit such as the Importance of Decision MakingProject ManagementFMEARoot Cause Analysis & Problem Solving in order to develop your skills.

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