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Better Brainstorming

Author: Russ Aikman

Posted: July 2021

In last month’s blog I shared examples of the often-overlooked lean principle of Creativity Before Capital. The non-lean approach is to spend money – buy new equipment, hire more staff, or work overtime. The lean approach is to embrace the ingenuity of staff in using existing equipment and employees to meet customer needs. 

In this month’s blog I will share thoughts on how to develop more unique and creative solutions as part of the Improve Phase. All Lean Six Sigma practitioners have some experience in this area. The challenge for most Green Belts and Black Belts isn’t coming up with ideas. It is to develop truly innovative, ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions. 

The starting point is to clearly communicate the root causes identified in the Analyze Phase. Make sure everyone on the team understands these root causes and whether some have a bigger effect on the process output than do others. If you have data, take advantage of graphical tools which can help:

  • Pareto charts
  • Main effects plots
  • Scatterplots
  • Boxplots

If you don’t have data, use more basic root cause tools which are visual such as:

  • Fishbone diagrams
  • Affinity diagrams
  • Multivoting 
  • C&E Matrix

The common theme: Use images, not words. Second, remind everyone of the goal of the project. The bigger the gap between the baseline and the goal, the more likely out-of-the-box thinking is required. Now you are ready to start your brainstorming session.

A quick review of brainstorming basics:

  • Encourage all to participate, and to build on ideas of others
  • Begin with several minutes of silence while team members write down ideas. Alternatively, ask them to develop their list of ideas before the brainstorming session begins.
  • Capture ideas in the exact language of each team member
  • No discussion or criticism of ideas during the session
  • Goal is to generate as many ideas as possible. Emphasize quantity over quality at this stage.

With that as your framework, here are some methods to come up with more innovative, unique, and creative solutions:

  1. Add a “Plant” to your Team – Have you ever worked with someone who was always dreaming up ‘pie in the sky’ ideas? That person may have been a Plant, which is one of the nine different team roles identified by social scientist Dr. Meredith Belbin. People who are Plants have many strengths which are exactly what teams need when looking for unusual solutions. Plants tend to be imaginative, creative, free-thinking types who are naturally good at generating unorthodox ideas. They do have some downsides. Plants may ignore rules, and can be absent-minded or pre-occupied with their own thoughts. Consider adding a Plant to your team, perhaps just for the brainstorming session.
    1. Learn more on about Belbin Team Roles
  2. Reverse Brainstorming – Instead of developing a list of ideas on how to solve your problem, develop a list of ideas on how to make the problem worse. This method helps team members think differently about ‘solutions’ to a problem by coming at it from a changed perspective. Imagine a LSS team working to reduce the error rate in a purchasing process. In Reverse Brainstorming the facilitator begins by asking ‘How could we change the purchasing process in order to increase the error rate?’. Answers might include don’t develop SOPs, don’t train staff, don’t communicate expectations, don’t check data entry fields, etc. Once these ideas have been generated then the team works to come up with how to prevent or limit those things from occurring.
  3. WWXD Brainstorming – In this approach the team brainstorms as if they worked at a different company or were a different person. The WWXD stands for ‘What Would X Do’. For example, you might ask ‘What Would Amazon Do?’. The goal is to get team members to think from a different perspective rather than limit themselves to their company culture. Here are two different ways of choosing the X, plus a key consideration to increase creativity:
    1. Innovative Company – For this version of the X begin by choosing a company known for innovative products or services. Examples include Nike, Apple, Toyota, Uber, Tesla, IBM, Wal-Mart, and Disney. First, brainstorm a list of characteristics associated with that firm’s products or services. Then brainstorm on solutions that firm would implement for your problem.
    2. Famous Person/Historical Figure – In this case a specific individual is chosen as the X rather than a company. It could be a historical figure (Henry Ford, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison) or a famous person who is living (Bill Gates, J. K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey). As with the innovative company, begin by listing attributes you associate with the person. Then imagine being that person during the brainstorming session.
    3. Use Images – For both options a best practice is to show images of the person, company logo, company products, etc. The more images the better.
  4. Picture Prompts – This is another approach in which images are used. Images tend to engage us in ways words do not. We often have an emotional response to photos we find interesting, funny, or compelling. With this brainstorming method the facilitator begins before the session by selecting several images. Some of the images should be related to the subject (e.g., an industrial scene for a manufacturing project). Preferably the images include people and not just equipment or empty rooms. Along with this type of image mix in some random photos which have no connection to the problem. Once the brainstorming session begins an image is given to each participant. That person is asked to write down ideas inspired by their specific image. The next step is to team up with another person. The pair then shares their images and ideas. Then partner to generate even more ideas. Next, each 2-person team reports their list of ideas to the larger group. Once all ideas are shared, they can be consolidated.

These are just some of the many ways to generate more creative and unique solutions. What methods have worked for you in generating creative solutions? Please share your approach – we’d love to hear from you!


More about Russ Aikman:

Russ is the LSS Program Manager at TMAC, and started the program in 2003. He is a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt with over 30 years of experience working in a wide variety of industries, and with small firms up to Fortune 500 companies. He has taught dozens of LSS classes from Yellow Belt up to Master Black Belt. He has also coached hundreds of LSS practitioners on their projects and advised managers on their LSS program. Before joining TMAC he worked at George Group, the first firm to integrate Lean and Six Sigma.

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