During the Six Sigma Improvement Stage of DMAIC, you will need to develop strategies and ideas for improving your process. There are three steps to coming up with viable improvement solutions. These steps are idea generation, organization, and assessment. 

Brainstorming can be defined as a structured method of generating unconstrained ideas/ solutions and gaining engagement/involvement in the improvement process.

Overview: What is brainstorming? 

The following steps are used to conduct a traditional brainstorming session:

  • Review the problem definition
  • Clarify the goal/question and provide any relevant information
  • Encourage creativity
  • Give everyone a few minutes of silence to think about the question and individually write down some ideas (Note: for ease of consolidation later, it is useful to use Post-Its, recording only one idea on each Post-It.)
  • Gather ideas, round-robin, one at a time, and hand in the Post-It.  Also write ideas on the flipchart and post the filled in sheets on the wall for all to see (and use as a basis for further ideas)
  • Encourage participants to continue to write down additional ideas as they think of them
  • Continue until everyone is out of ideas
  • Write down every idea
  • Can use the C&E Diagram to avoid groupthink and assure a balanced brainstorming session
  • Take a break from the creative portion and prepare for the organize portion (Note: Can use the Affinity Diagram to organize ideas into groups)
  • Answer questions, get clarification of ideas, ask for more specific information where needed
  • If new ideas arise during the organize portion, record them
  • Consolidate similar ideas and discuss the complete set of ideas
  • Again, clarify ideas and how they are grouped until the team is satisfied

Some additional common forms of brainstorming are:

  • Time Travel – How would you deal with this if you were in a different time period? 
  • Teleportation – What if you were facing this problem in a different place?
  • Attribute change – How would you think about this if you were a different gender? Age? Race? Intellect? Height? Weight? Nationality?
  • Role storming – What would you do if you were someone else? 
  • Iconic Figures – This is a spinoff of role storming. What if you were an iconic figure of the past? 
  • Superpowers – This is another spinoff of role storming. What if you suddenly have superpowers? 
  • Brain Writing – Get a group of people and have them write their ideas on their own sheet of paper. After 10 minutes, rotate the sheets to different people and build off what the others wrote on their paper. Continue until everyone has written on everyone else’s sheet.
  • Reverse Brainstorming – Helps you solve problems by combining brainstorming and reversal techniques. For example, rather than ask how you can improve something, ask how you can make it worse.

3 benefits of brainstorming 

Brainstorming is a powerful tool for the creation of ideas. These are some of the major benefits of brainstorming:

1. Brainstorming produces many ideas/solutions in a short time.

If done properly, the team can generate many ideas relative to the subject being explored. If the team is kept on task, this is a rapid moving process. 

2. Brainstorming facilitates the creative thinking process.

Brainstorming is a formal and structured process which encourages the generation of uninhibited ideas. It is not a freewheeling bull session.

3. Brainstorming separates idea generation from the organizing, assessment, and prioritization of the ideas.

By eliminating the tendency to judge and evaluate ideas during the brainstorming session, you keep focused on the generation of ideas and not the organizing or evaluating portions of the creative process. 

Why is brainstorming important to understand? 

To be done properly, you need to understand how brainstorming differs from just a freewheeling and unmanaged idea generating process.

It requires discipline 

To keep from going off topic and digressing to irrelevant conversations and distractions, brainstorming must be facilitated to maintain rapid completion of idea generation.

The ideas of the group will exceed those of an individual 

No one person has all the great ideas. The value of brainstorming with a team is to use the collective experience and knowledge of the various participants to give you a great volume of potential solutions and improvements. 

Brainstorming is only the first step in the creative process 

You can’t stop after just brainstorming. You will need to organize, assess, evaluate, and deploy the ideas once you have generated them in your brainstorming session.

 An industry example of brainstorming 

Jennifer is the distribution and transportation manager for a large retail company and was assigned the task of improving customer satisfaction.

There had been various improvement initiatives in the past and the team members had become rather skeptical about another meeting on the subject. The team was overworked, team members were trying their best, and there was no appetite to waste time talking about this.

She decided to use reverse brainstorming in the hopes it would make the team meeting more interesting and engage people in a new way. To prepare for the team meeting, Jennifer thought carefully about the problem and wrote down the problem statement:

“How do we improve customer satisfaction?”

Then she reversed the problem statement: “How do we make customers more dissatisfied?”

At the team meeting, everyone got involved in an enjoyable and productive reverse brainstorming session. They drew on both their work experience with customers and also their personal experience of being customers of other organizations. Jennifer helped ideas flow freely, ensuring people did not pass judgment on even the most unlikely suggestions.

Here are just a few of the “reverse” ideas:

  • Double book deliveries.
  • Hog the customer loading docks.
  • Put customers who phone on hold (and forget about them).
  • Deliver the wrong products.
  • Make sure the invoices are incorrect.

The reverse brainstorming session revealed many improvement ideas that the team could implement swiftly, and Jennifer concluded: “It was enlightening and fun looking at the problem in reverse. The amazing thing is, it’s helped us become more customer-friendly by stopping the dumb things we do that we know aren’t right.”

3 best practices when thinking about brainstorming 

While the brainstorming technique seems simple, there are a few actions you can take to ensure the session goes well. They are: 

1. Pick the most appropriate people you can

Some sessions only include people that are currently available to participate. Don’t do that. Try to get the most knowledgeable and experienced people, making sure they are open, supportive, and receptive to exploring change. 

2. Stay on task 

There is a natural tendency for groups to get off-track and digress from the topic at hand. Be sure to keep the team focused on task, so the process is effective in generating ideas.

3. Don’t let a manager on the team dominate the session 

If the process manager is in the brainstorming session, beware of overt or covert tendencies to dominate the discussion. This may depress and hinder good idea generation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about brainstorming

What is the most harmful thing you can do in a brainstorming session?

Criticize other people’s ideas. A brainstorm session should be focusing on generating many ideas rather than criticizing them. By criticizing others’ ideas, you will destroy the feeling of collaboration and discourage others from sharing their ideas.

Is brain writing a good brainstorming technique?

Yes. To do this, get a group of people and have them write their ideas on their own sheet of paper. After 10 minutes, rotate the sheets to different people and build off what the others wrote on their paper. Continue until everyone has written on everyone else’s sheet.

Should the process manager facilitate the brainstorming session?

Probably not. Because of their position of power and the tendency to concur with rather than argue with your manager the team members might be reluctant to offer wild and crazy ideas for fear of looking bad in front of their manager. 

Wrapping it up

Brainstorming is a powerful idea generating technique for gathering large numbers of ideas on a specific topic. It is a structured process and not just a freewheeling session with people just randomly calling out ideas. 

The key is to focus on idea generation and not on critiquing, judging, or evaluating. Those actions will occur in subsequent stages of the creative process where the brainstormed ideas are organized, assessed, and prioritized.

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