Brainstorming is a method for generating a large number of creative ideas in a short period of time. Brainstorming is full of energy, moves rapidly, and is synergistic, creating a large list of ideas which may eventually be boiled down, or funneled down, to a smaller list of priority items later in the project.


When to use Brainstorming:

  • When a broad range of options are desired.
  • When creative ideas are desired.
  • When participation of an entire team is desired.

In Six Sigma, brainstorming goes well with:

Types of Brainstorming

Free-form / Popcorn Brainstorming:

A simple tool for groups in which everyone is comfortable speaking out. You just open the floor for ideas and take them as they come. Summarize ideas as necessary and record them on a flip chart.

Materials needed:

  • Flipchart (or large dry erase board), pens, tape, and a blank wall (to hang the completed flipchart sheets).
  • Popcorn is optional.

Step 1: Review the rules:

  • No criticism. This stifles participation.
  • No evaluation. Evaluation can be done later.
  • No discussion of ideas. This tends to slow down the progress of the storm.
  • The idea is to keep things moving! It’s okay to get clarification, but discussions bog things down.
  • There are no stupid ideas. The crazier the better. Even if someone suggests an idea jokingly, add it to the list.
  • All ideas are recorded.
  • Combining (also known as “piggy-backing”) and expanding on others’ ideas is encouraged.

Step 2: Review the topic:

Often it is best phrased as a why, how, or what question. Make sure everyone understands the subject of the brainstorm.

For example:

  • Why does the approval process take so long?
  • Why is the reader rework so high?
  • How can we increase sales?
  • What is causing defects in process XYZ?

Step 3: Think:

Allow a minute or two of silence for everyone to think about the question.

Step 4: Solicit Ideas

When brainstorming, it is best to solicit the ideas out loud instead of using Post-it Notes or some other way of anonymously soliciting ideas. If the brainstorming session is done out loud, team members are able to piggyback on others’ ideas.

Step 5: Call Out Ideas:

Invite people to call out their ideas. Quickly. Keep moving. Snap. Snap. One idea on the flipchart after another. Record all ideas, in words as close as possible to those used by the contributor. Remember, no discussion or evaluation of any ideas is permitted.

Step 6: Continue Until Stopped:

Continue to generate and record ideas until several minutes of silence produces no more ideas.

Helpful Options:

  • If you find some team members dominating the interaction or being too long-winded or too critical, try limiting ideas to a few words or a catch phrase.
  • If people do not know each other well, or may not be comfortable speaking up in front of each other, have the team quietly write ideas on post-its. Once finished the ideas are put on to a board then organized into groupings (affinitized).
  • Round-Robin Brainstorming

Round robin brainstorming is much like the popcorn variant. When you invite people to call out their ideas, you have each person in the group say one original idea in turn. If they have no ideas that have not yet been added to the board on their turn, they may pass. Stop the round-robin brainstorming when everyone passes.

Associative Thinking

Sort of the reverse of the affinitization methods. Go around the room for the favorite large categories on your subject. Say, the top 5. Then break the room into 5 teams and assign each one a topic and have them go deep on each.

Creative Challenge

Cite the issue you are brainstorming on, and then ask each of the following questions in order. Have the team talk about each one and list those items before moving on to the next.

  • Why does this process exist?
  • Does it have to be this way?
  • What are the reasons it is this way?
  • Are there alternatives?

Paring down the ideas:

Upon completion of the brainstorming session, the team may want to boil down the large list into a smaller, manageable list.
One might ask, if you’re trying to get to a small list, why would you ever brainstorm in the first place? If the team brainstorms 100 ideas, the probability that the best ideas are on the flipchart SOMEWHERE is high. If, the brainstorming session was skipped, the probability that the short list will be missing a key item will be greater than if the team had brainstormed the larger list first.

Sticky Dots

One quick way of paring down a large list is to give each team member five sticky dots. You tell the team members that each of them can put their sticky dots on five of the items on the list that they think are the most important. If a team member feels that one particular item is extremely important, that member might choose to put all of their five dots on that one item. There is a problem with this method though. It is quick and therefore minimizes the follow-on (after the brainstorming session) healthy discussions that could make the paring down process more effective.

Alternative: Brain Mapping

Perhaps Idea generation should be separate from the discussion.

Six Sigma Black Belt Certification Brainstorming Questions:

Question: Which of the following methods is used to develop an exhaustive list of ideas about a subject? (Taken from ASQ sample Black Belt exam.)

(A) Benchmarking
(B) Brainstorming
(C) Goal-setting
(D) Problem-solving

Answer: (B) Brainstorming gets you an exhaustive list of ideas about a subject. The other answers don’t make any sense.


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