Brainstorming Pitfalls

Brainstorming is supposed to improve creativity, broaden associations, spark insights and generate lots of creative ideas. When I first learned TQM, the instructors taught us to brainstorm problems to work on. The difficulty was that we had no idea what a good problem looked like. And it's hard to tell a team to brainstorm a problem to solve and then tell them that their problem is stupid. Lots of teams were started; few succeeded.

This highlights the main problem with brainstorming: if you don't know what you're looking for, you won't get useful ideas.

Brainstorming Research
In the book Made to Stick, the Heath brothers reference a study of brainstorming. Groups were supposed to create the marketing ideas for a product.

  • One group just started creating ideas
  • The second group was given two hours of training in brainstorming methods
  • The third group was given two hours of training in the six most successful templates for ads.

All ads were evaluated by a marketing director and tested on customers.

  • Group one's ads were considered annoying by customers.
  • Group two's ads were considered less annoying but no more creative.
  • Group three's ads were considered 50% more creative and generated a 55% better response from customers.

In other words, brainstorming is useless unless you know what you're looking for or have a template for success.

Lean Six Sigma Templates for Success
When I look for problems to solve with Lean Six Sigma, I'm always looking for something I can solve with these methods and tools.

You can't fix your supplier's or customer's process which is often the end result of brainstorming; you can see everyone else's faults, but not your own. I can't tell you how many teams I've seen try to fix management or their suppliers or their customers. You can't fix someone else's process, because you don't own it.

You can't fix morale with Lean Six Sigma. You can't fix perceptions. You can, however, fix the underlying problems that lower morale and perceptions.

When it comes to Lean Six Sigma, I'm always looking for:

Sluggish processes can always benefit from the application of Lean. Most of the delay is between process steps when the product is waiting for the next action.

Error-prone processes devour profits in waste and rework. If detailed numerical counts of defects and their effects (i.e., costs) exist, then it's easy to use Six Sigma's problem solving process to find and fix the problem. Where there are no facts and figures about the problem, Six Sigma fails.

Variation from the ideal target causes higher costs and lower profit margins. Common types of deviation include:
  • Too long or too short
  • Too big or too small
  • Too wide or too narrow
  • Too dense or too porous
  • Too fast or too slow

Get the idea? It's okay to brainstorm problems about one of these three templates for improvement, but it's usually worthless to brainstorm without these focuses.

Worst of all, most teams hesitate to identify the really pressing problems because they don't want to be on the hook for fixing them. In contrast, they should focus on the worst first. Fix those problems and everything else starts falling into place. We have to stop majoring in minor things.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537,"

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