A lot of lean is about problem solving, and most of these problems are complex and difficult. Otherwise, someone would have solved them already. Hence, I would like to introduce you to different creativity techniques for problem solving. Most of them can be used in groups to access the collective wisdom and creativity. Most of them are also suitable to develop a number of alternative solutions, of which you can pick the best ones (see my previous post on Japanese Multidimensional Problem Solving). Many of them can be combined in sequence. Let me start with the most common one, brainstorming:
Brainstorming is a simple technique. It can generate a large number of ideas but is best suited for less-difficult issues. If you need a detailed analysis and lots of data to generate ideas, brainstorming will be less suitable. For example, it would be more difficult (but not impossible) to brainstorm what stocks to invest, since you may need lots of fundamental data to aid this decision. I like to use brainstorming as an opening creativity technique, to be followed up by more-advanced creativity techniques later on.
Preparation for Brainstorming
To prepare for brainstorming, you would need a group of people, ideally at least three and no more than ten. If there are more than ten, chances are that some won’t participate but remain quiet and in the background. Naturally, the group should be people with at least some experience with the problem, not just some random people you drag off the street. Older and experienced people are valuable, since they obviously know a lot about the problem. However, younger ones with less experience are also valuable, since they don’t know yet all the things that “obviously don’t work.” They are more ready to challenge conventional wisdom.
It also helps if the group gets along well and is comfortable with each other. If you need to include different levels of hierarchy, try to make the span not too wide. Workers are most comfortable and open with other workers, a bit less so with their boss, and even less so with their boss’s boss, and so on. Ideally, you also include people from different functions. There could be people who have to work with the problem on a daily basis (e.g., the machine operators or foremen). There could be people who set up the system (maintenance or production planning). There could be people who are affected by the problem (e.g., logistics). Try to get a diverse group. All of this, of course, also applies to a workshop team in general, as brainstorming is only one of the first steps of problem solving, and ideally there is a consistent team throughout the problem-solving process.
As for equipment, you would need a pin board and cards, or alternatively large Post-its. You need these to write down the ideas. They have to be movable so participants can write on the board directly, and you can later arrange the ideas into groups. A flip chart can be helpful, but a flip chart alone is not enough.
Assuming you have introduced the team already, you would need to introduce the problem. This can be verbal or with a slide or two. Don’t overdo it with the slides! The participants need to know what problem needs to be addressed. The group can optionally help to rephrase the question. At the end, you need to have one (!) question that the group needs to brainstorm ideas for.
The moderator then starts the actual brainstorming process, and the group generates ideas. These ideas are written on the cards (or large Post-its), either by the participant or by the moderator, and attached to the board. Here we have a few options:
- Having the participants give the ideas verbally with the moderator writing them down works well for groups that get along with each other.
- Having the participants write multiple ideas on cards before they are collected by moderator to read aloud can help with groups that span multiple hierarchies or that have other conflicts.
- Asking in sequence around the table, with each participant giving one idea before the next participant gives an idea (with the option to skip if there is no idea), is also possible. This can be written down by the moderator or the participant. The advantage is that even the quieter participants are encouraged to contribute. It also makes it a bit harder for people to be passive, as everybody is asked to create ideas.
The cards should be large enough that the participants can read all of them all the time (as this assists the idea generation process). This idea generation should go on as long as the ideas are flowing, often around fifteen minutes. The moderator can assist by asking some questions (e.g., can it be rearranged, transformed, replaced, combined, etc.?)
In a next step, the cards are arranged into groups. In all likelihood, there may be quite a few similar ideas. The moderator arranges these while interacting with the participants (“Would this fit here?”, “That seems to be similar to this…,” etc.). If the participants have additional ideas based on this discussion, they should of course be included. Eventually there should be a number of different solution approaches on the board. These should be given meaningful headers by the group that the moderator adds to the board. These headers are the basis for the subsequent problem-solving process that may include a ranking of the ideas (feasible or less feasible) and further refinement.
- Quantity over quality: The goal is to generate lots of ideas. Evaluating them will come later.
- Encourage crazy ideas: Do not under any circumstances talk down an idea as crazy or foolish. Stop any of the participants in their tracks if they down-talk the idea of others. A lot of inventions and solutions come from ideas that were crazy and outlandish (“Heavier than air flight? What nonsense. What’s next? Strap someone to a canister full of combustible fuel and shoot them into space?”). Absolutely and positively encourage crazy ideas. It is much better to sort them out later than to never have a crazy but good idea in the first place. Even if the crazy idea does not work, it may give inspiration to another participant for a related but more feasible idea.
- No evaluation during idea generation: Related to the previous bullet point, do not judge or evaluate ideas during the creation. This would stifle the creativity and can potentially make participants hesitate to contribute for fear of embarrassment by their peers (or the moderator).
- Ideas over people: Especially with groups including leadership, there is a risk that “the top guy is always right” (“Yes-men”). Try to encourage creativity beyond merely agreeing with the top guy in the room. Furthermore, also especially with leadership, participants have the need to get credit for their ideas to get ahead for the next promotion. It is perfectly okay to take someone else’s idea and improve it. Try to prevent wasting time on the ownership of ideas, and rather put it into creating more ideas.
Overall, brainstorming is a tried-and-true technique to start idea generation for not overly complex problems. It is a good first creativity technique, to be augmented by other creativity techniques later on (see subsequent posts). As brainstorming is common, however, there is the risk of ambivalence or boredom by the participants to do “this stuff again,” especially if previous brainstorming sessions may have been less well moderated. Yet in my view, brainstorming is a useful technique and can be used for many (not all) problems. Next week I will write more about other creativity techniques. In the meantime, go out, tickle the gray cells in your brain and the brains of your people, and organize your industry!