When problems arise there are great tools to attack them, specifically root-cause analysis and DMAIC. There are also excellent tools to stimulate creativity to develop new products, improve current products, and build innovative solutions. An excellent technique to help solve tough problems is Reverse Brainstorming.
Reverse Brainstorming combines brainstorming and reversal techniques. The technique helps to generate lots of ideas and attack the problem from a new perspective. To make it more powerful be sure to use structured brainstorming to stay on focus and ensure everyone knows the goal of the session. This technique has you reverse a typical question regarding the problem.
For example, “How do I prevent the oil from leaking?” is reversed and stated as “How can I cause the oil to leak?” The ability to start the problem solving process from the actual causation can be a powerful generator of new ideas.
A typical process when using Reverse Brainstorming is to first, ensure a very good problem statement is identified. Then, develop the reverse question (it is good to create both types of questions). Then, use structured brainstorming techniques to generate a large number of possible ideas; be sure to use the traditional rules of brainstorming. Now reverse these ideas to solve the problem. Use typical evaluation techniques (dotmocracy, ranking, etc.) to determine the best ideas to pursue.
Let’s look at a real example:
Bob is the senior manager of a quality assurance (QA) group within a major automotive company and has the task of solving why a specific family of engines has had higher than average failures. The QA team typically uses a root-cause analysis process to solve these types of problems. Bob wants to try a new technique to test if the team can improve problem solving abilities and solve problems quicker.
To prepare for the team meeting, Bob thinks carefully about the problem and writes down the problem statement:
"How do we avoid engines from seizing?"
Then he reverses problem statement:
"How do we make engines seize?"
A meeting is called with appropriate stakeholders. The team members were prepped beforehand on the goals of the meeting and the problem they will work on. All attendees bring various data that might be applicable to the problem as well as their experience. As a veteran brainstorming facilitator, Bob keeps the discussion moving, abiding by the basic rules of brainstorming.
Some of the "reverse" ideas the team developed were:
Manufacture pistons that are too thick
Prevent oil from reaching the pistons
Put a small “nick” in each cylinder during manufacturing
When the brainstorming session finishes, the team has a long list of the "reverse" solutions. Now each idea is looked at in reverse to develop possible solutions. Some ideas the team came up with were:
“Let’s contact the factory and review the pistons that have come from the supplier for any out-of-spec issues.”
“Did all the oil ports get properly machined during manufacturing? Some might be solid and blocking oil flow.”
“Let’s go to the factory and watch how the cylinders are handled and the pistons are installed to see if any damage is happening.”
The team checked each idea and found a batch of crankcases had oil ports that were not machined properly. This allowed some oil to flow but not enough to prevent the pistons from seizing. The use of a new problem-solving tool energized the QA team and resulted in financial savings as the crankcase vendor was informed of the issue and recalibrated the CNC machines avoiding more mis-machined parts.
Reverse brainstorming is a great creative thinking tool to move beyond the familiar. Using this technique individually or with a small group is a great way to develop new ideas and competitive advantages. Always try new creative thinking tools to experiment with new ways to innovate. Remember, creativity is a skill, and like any other skill your creativity will improve by learning the basics, practicing, failing, and trying again.