Sunday, August 01, 2010

Brainstorming - I THINK NOT!

Process Improvement and Quality Consultants get upset when I talk bad about some of their tools and techniques used to generate ideas and solutions on how to identify root cause and suggest solutions.

Today the subject is “Brainstorming,” and why it is not worth your time and effort.

I read the following headline today in the Detroit Free Press:

“Hundreds of people concerned about the ailing state economy came to the University of Michigan on Tuesday to brainstorm ideas on how to increase Michigan's role in the global economic environment.” (qg says ...why then do we have a department in Lansing that is supposed to know how to increase and improve our state economy - if they can't ---> get rid of them).

First let me provide a definition that is usually found in many quality and process improvement training books about Brainstorming.

Most problems are not solved automatically by the first idea that comes to mind. To get to the best solution it is important to consider many possible solutions. One of the best ways to do this is called brainstorming. Brainstorming is the act of defining a problem or idea and coming up anything related to the topic - no matter how remote a suggestion may sound. All of these ideas are recorded and evaluated only after the brainstorming is completed.

It is a means of aiming to facilitate problem solving through the maxim quantity breeds quality. The greater the number of ideas generated, the greater the chance of producing a radical and effective solution.

  1. In a small or large group select a leader and a recorder (they may be the same person).
  2. Define the problem or idea to be brainstormed. Make sure everyone is clear on the topic being explored.
  3. Set up the rules for the session. They should include:
    * Letting the leader have control.
    * Allowing everyone to contribute.
    * Ensuring that no one will insult, demean, or evaluate another participant or her response.
    * Stating that no answer is wrong.
    * Recording each answer unless it is a repeat.
    * Setting a time limit and stopping when that time is up.
  4. Start the brainstorming. Have the leader select members of the group to share their answers. The recorder should write down all responses, if possible so everyone can see them. Make sure not to evaluate or criticize any answers until done brainstorming.
  5. Once you have finished brainstorming, go through the results and begin evaluating the responses. Some initial qualities to look for when examining the responses include:
    * Looking for any answers that are repeated or similar.
    * Grouping like concepts together.
    * Eliminating responses that definitely do not fit.
    * Now that you have narrowed your list down some, discuss the remaining responses as a group.

Brainstorming has many applications but it is most frequently used in:
Problem Solving - issues, root causes, alternative solutions, impact analysis, evaluation
Process Management - finding ways of improving business and production processes
Project Management - identifying client objectives, risks, deliverables, work packages, resources, roles and responsibilities, tasks, issues
Team Building - generates sharing and discussion of ideas while stimulating participants to think

qualityg says … If your PI Consultants or Management Team have no idea on how to capture problems or generate sound solutions then you are in big time trouble. Using subjective ideas and information (Brainstorming) for possible solutions is WRONG and more than likely will result in “Tampering (special vs. common cause)” and “Sub-Optimizing your processes/systems.

Forget about the feel good of giving all employees a chance to participate in decision-making. You better be gathering/monitoring your processes to tell you where problems are located with objective data and information (including subject-matter experts).

Look again at the steps above, do you really want to waste time, resources and dollars making suggestions that may or may not have any value to your current situation. Once the team generates these probable ideas/solutions then they go out and try to collect data to justify their conclusions.

How stupid is that? Sounds to me your Consultant and Management Team have no idea what they are doing, and that does not surprise me!


Anonymous said...

So how do you get meaningful information if not through brainstorming to generate ideas that are not part of a process or system (i.e., like making the workplace a better place to work)?


qualityg says said...


Sounds like you are more involved with "Quality of Worklife(QWL)" than Process Improvement.

Yes, Brainstorming can generate ideas, but I would still hope that the people who work in the office know what really needs to improve.

The best way to gather information when you don't know where to start is to ask WHO, WHAT, WHY, WHERE, WHEN & HOW. The one question to keep asking is "By What Method did you form your idea or conclusion?"

Thanks for the question,


j-man said...

qg, I think that the main problem with brainstorming is that rather than using it as a tool to generate ideas, it is often used as a complete process improvement tool. I can't tell you how many times I've been to one of these sessions where ideas were discussed, problems were identified, and solutions were determined all in one session. It also seems like the session organizers think that by gathering the "brightest" individuals in a company you’ll be guaranteed a solution to a problem. Yes, it is true that you need the input from knowledgeable individuals, but often times these folks come to these sessions thinking that they already know the problem and the solution. Since these folks are the “experts” people are usually afraid to question their opinions and generally go right along with whatever they say. This is especially true in a technology based business where the “experts” can confuse, and therefore intimidate, the other session participants with their technical jargon. This problem is compounded even more if the meeting organizer is an outside consultant whose “expertise” is in running brainstorming sessions and not in the subject matter. You then have the meeting organizer following the lead of the “experts” as well. Often times, in the end you have both a problem and a solution based totally on the opinion of “experts”. So do brainstorming sessions have any value? Yes. Are they an over-rated, and misused tool for improvement? Very much so.

qualityg says said...


Well stated and excellent examples on how Brainstorming goes bad.