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Shigeo Shingo: Brainstorming

“Five to ten participants are ideal. If we want to achieve improvement we must furst have the mental flexibility to believe that even though there is only one summit, there are many paths we can tread to reach it. If we adamantly think that the current methods are the best and no other means are possible, improvement ideas will never emerge. If employees were under the impression that the way in which they performed their job is flawed, it would be impossible to receive quality work from them. Even though the flaws have nothing to do with the employee, it is still a discouraging thought.”

Shigeo Shingo; Kaizen and the art of Creative Thinking; PCS Press; Pp85

Brainstorming

“Brainstorming was developed by A.F. Osborn in the United States. It is based on the following ideas:

  • Humans can produce more ideas in group settings rather than thinking individually.
  • The power of idea generation is greatest in a criticism-free environment.

According to an experiment when the same topic is presented, 44 percent more ideas were generated in groups rather than by individuals alone. This can be attributed to the chain reaction of thoughts created in group settings. One person’s idea stimulates another’s through the process of association. According to psychological experiments of adults, a range of 65 to 93 percent more associations occur in group settings.

Criticism free enviroment ensures creative thinking

For effective brainstorming it is important to maintain an environment where creative output is encouraged. During the brainstorming meetings the following four rules must be observed.

Four Basic Rules of Brainstorming
  1. No criticism
  2. Welcome unusual ideas
  3. Generate as many ideas as possible
  4. Combine and improve ideas

The first rule, no criticism, speaks for itself. It is by far the most important rule as it is the foundation through which all others are applied.

The second rule, welcome unusual ideas, comes from the fact that unusual ideas promote new ways of thinking and more often than not, lead to better solutions.

For example, there was a brainstorming session at a company on the topic of improving toasters. One participant suggested the idea of attaching mouse traps to their toasters! This bizarre idea eventually lead people to realize that accumulating bread crumbs were to blame for attracting mice; therefore, a mechanism to take out bread crumbs should be installed. The company responded by inventing toasters with removable bread crumb trays and their sales rose sharply as a result.

The third rule, generate as many ideas as possible, comes from the simple fact that if there are more ideas, there are more great ideas.

The fourth rule, combine and improve ideas, is an essential component of group-intelligence stemming from the comprehensive association and synthesis of ideas.

In addition, to following the previous rules, the following should be considered prior to brainstorming:

Problem:
  • Define the problem, it needs to be clear and not too big
  • The target should be challenging. Dynamic results can be expected if the topic is “cutting the rate of defects in half” father than “reducing defects by 10 percent”
  • The problem should be something that does not require pen and paper. Problems that require writing down equations or calculations are not appropriate.
  • The problem needs to be presented in a clear and distinctly simple manner so everyone can grasp the issue at hand.

The problem must not be disclosed beforehand. If background information is needed, reference material can be used.

Having no bread crumbs means no tray

Participants:
  1. Five to ten participants are ideal.
  2. It is better to mix people with various backgrounds. It is also a good idea to combine those who are outspoken with those who are reserved.
  3. Groups can be all males, all females, or mixed gender.
Time:
  1. 30 minutes to an hour is preferred but it can be as short as 10 or 15 minutes.
  2. If the session is planned to last an hour, insert a short break (about 5 minutes) in the middle and take a rest from thinking. Any break longer than 10 minutes is not appropriate, as it will diminish the established momentum.
Session Process:
  • The facilitator explains the four basic rules.
  • The facilitator explains the problem clearly and suggests a few leads
  • Have a camera or recorder on hand to document the session. It is also a good idea to have a white-board available to present the ideas visually.
  • If the flow of ideas stop, the facilitator should suggest more ideas or hints to rekindle the session. If criticism is raised and continues, the facilitator should give a warning and reiterate the first rule.
  • If the participants seem to be tired, the facilitator has to make an effort to change the mood by throwing in appropriate jokes or relevant stories.
  • The table for the meeting should not be too big. Small tables create a better atmosphere for discussion.
  • A relaxed atmosphere should be created. If all the participants can pitch in their ideas in an enjoyable manner, as if they are playing sports, the session will be a success.

Brainstorming is not necessarily a thinking method meant for improvement. Rather, it is a style of thinking and idea generation that can be used for improvement but it is also applicable for broader purposes.

Collective thinking results in better ideas

There is a well-known Japanese saying that states, “Out of the counsel of three comes wisdom.” This old adage echoes brainstorming in terms of the effectiveness of collective thinking.

I sometimes use brainstorming to encourage creativity. I once asked people to come up with more than 100 ideas on the topic of “things that can be achieved with 30 seconds of manual labor.” They immediately thought it was impossible. I explained the rules of brainstorming and asked people to discuss in groups of three. At the end of the session, as many as 680 ideas were presented.

It is vital to keep judgements from the brainstorming process. Indeed, it is the essence of brainstorming process. For this reason, I emphasize the importance of collective thinking and the separation of idea generation and judgment in my Scientific Thinking Mechanism.”

References:

  • Shingo, Shigeo; Kaizen and the art of Creative Thinking; Ed. PCS Press, Vancouver CA, 2007; Pp96-101
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