Analyzing a Problem:

The Basics of Phase 1

What is the purpose of this phase?

You and your team will investigate a critical problem that stands in the way of student achievement and develop a deeper understanding of the complexity and nuance of the problem, from multiple perspectives.

When should this happen?

At the start of your improvement work.

Who is involved?

The improvement team leader and all team members.

What will you do?

Use multiple strategies to analyze your problem focus area, discover unconventional and unimagined strategies, and identify a clear and actionable problem statement.

Key Term

Problem statement vs. problem area

Understanding how to distill a problem statement from the problem focus area is a critical part of the improvement science process.

Problem statement vs problem focus area

Analyzing a Problem:

Summary of the Concepts

When confronted with a problem, there is a human tendency to leap immediately toward solutions rather than exploring the problem’s context and complexity. In Learning to Improve, Bryk et al. emphasize the importance of resisting this temptation and doing these three things instead:

1. Carefully locate your problem within the larger system of people, policies, attitudes, and the physical environment in which it resides.

2. Tease out the interconnected factors contributing to the problem.

3. Define the problem from the perspective of the “users” —the kids and adults directly affected by it.

You will start the improvement science process by thoroughly analyzing your problem focus area using tools that allow you to understand it from multiple perspectives. The goal is to attain a deeper understanding of the problem and uncover previously unimagined solutions. This process should help you identify a clear and actionable problem statement that your team will work to solve.

chart of good problems to analyze

Choosing Your Tools

Analysis Tool Selector

After analyzing your problem, use the Analysis Tool Selector to decide which tool(s) to use. The tool features six questions about the following:

  • time constraints
  • team perspectives
  • the student perspective
  • visualizing the problem
  • experience with research questions
  • gathering multiple voices

Once you’ve answered each question, tally your marks and select the tool you’ve circled the most. (Click on the image to the right to access the tool.)

thumbnail for analysis tool selector

Overview of the Tools

Click the image or title to access the tools. The document will either download automatically (PCs) or open in a new window (Macs).

fishbone diagram

Fishbone Diagram

60-90 minutes of meeting time

What is it? A map of the problem you are trying to tackle.

What does it do? Helps dissect a problem by identifying five or six major “bones”—the primary causes of the problem—with three to five smaller bones, or underlying causes, extending from each.

Why use it? To capture the experiences of a team of people who know a problem well.

Is your team ready to “fishbone” your problem? This activity will guide you through the process with your team.

community pulse survey image

Community Pulse

15-90 minutes to create the survey
plus time to conduct interviews and collect surveys

What is it? Short targeted surveys.

What does it do? “Takes the pulse” of a school community by gathering information about how members understand the problem and its causes.

Why use it? To gather insights from a large group—more than 15 but less than 50 people.

Are you ready to create a survey? This tool will guide you through the process with your team.

Empathy Mapping

a day to follow your users
60-90 minutes to analyze and debrief 

What is it? A study that involves spending time with your “users”—usually students—and gathering observational notes, interviews, photos, and other internal documents. Empathy mapping involves two steps:

  1. collect data about the problem focus area
  2. combine your findings in an empathy map.

What does it do? Helps us understand the problem from the users’ perspective, uncover our own assumptions, and identify blind spots that can prevent us from understanding students’ holistic experience at school.

Why use it? Empathy mapping enables new insights into “big picture” problems. It helps us step into the experience of our students, and understanding otherwise hidden factors that affect them.

Are you ready for empathy mapping? This tool will guide you through the process with your team.

empathy map diagram

Verifying Your Problem

After your team has implemented at least one of the tools mentioned above, use the Problem Statement Readiness Check to determine if your team is ready to begin crafting solutions or if more problem analysis is required.

Problem Statement Readiness Check

What is it? An analysis tool to help your team consolidate your learning about a large problem, so you can focus on a part of the problem that is within your power to address.

**This tool should be used after you have implemented at least one of the tools mentioned above.**

What does it do? Helps teams decide if they are ready to transition from analyzing a problem to crafting solutions to solve it.

Why use it? This tool will lead you to creating and finalizing your problem statement, which is necessary to move on to Phase 2: Creating a Theory of Improvement.

Are you ready to verify your problem statement? This tool will guide you through the process with your team.

image of problem readiness check tool