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The Management Pocketbooks Pocket Correspondence Course

This is part of an extended management course. You can dip into it, or follow the course from the start. If you do that, you may want a course notebook, for the exercises and any notes you want to make.

In last week’s Pocket Correspondence Course module, we looked at problem solving, using the Synectics process. The problem with all problem solving processes is the black hole in the middle:

Problem Solving Process

That black hole is where a brilliant, innovative, creative idea happens.

Many, Many Approaches to Creativity

There are many approaches to stimulating this sort of creative idea, from bisociation to nyaka, from the Eureka method to Merlin. You will find all of these and more in The Creative Manager’s Pocketbook.

But there are two ‘master techniques’ that will serve a busy manager magnificently well. Let’s try them out. To do so, think of one or two problems for which you want to find a creative solution. Write them down in your notebook in the form:

‘I would like to discover how to…’

This is your ‘problem definition’.

Exercise 1: Sleep on it

Most creativity methods implicitly recognise that creativity happens while we are not looking. Given a problem, our brains will work on it at any time they have spare capacity. So the master technique creates that space by taking your mind off actively considering the problem – or anything else. Go for a walk, go out with friends or, better yet, take a nap. Best of all, write down your problem definition before you go to sleep at night.

The second stage to the process recognises that, when our brains are busy, ideas can’t find the room to get out. They tend to emerge either when something in our environment triggers them to emerge, because it bears some form of similarity, so the barrier is lowered, or in the spaces when our minds are still, like in the shower, walking to the bus stop, or drinking a coffee.

Since you cannot arrange the trigger event that lowers the barriers momentarily, create the quietening conditions that will let your idea emerge. Spend some time doing nothing that requires deliberate thought. Daydream, jot random thoughts onto a page, or sip a coffee or a tea, looking out of the window.

Constructive idleness is one of the two master techniques for creativity.

Exercise 2: Up and Down

Many creativity techniques are about breaking the mental constraints that we impose on our own thinking and finding a new way to look at the problem: so called ‘thinking outside the box’. Here, ‘the box’ represents your mental constraints.

The master technique for doing this is to start with your problem definition: ‘how to…’ and ask your self:

‘What is my reason for wanting to…?’

Keep asking this question of each answer (akin to the 5 Whys Technique) until the answer is both fundamental and self-evidently true. This is your ultimate purpose. Having gone ‘up’, now come back down, with the question:

‘How else can I achieve this purpose?’

Keep asking this to generate creative new options.

Further Reading 

  1. The Problem Solving Pocketbook
  2. The Creative Manager’s Pocketbook
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Six Tools from Six Sigma

Last week, we looked at the over-arching process used for correcting and improving within Six Sigma, DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control).  DMAIC and Six Sigma are supported by a huge toolkit of quantitative and qualitative tools to support measurement and analysis.  Not all of them need advanced statistics or sophisticated training to use with some benefit.

Any competent manager should be building your own personal toolbox and here are six that can be readily and widely applied.

Five Whys

A simple means to get to the root cause of a problem is to start with a statement of the problem and to ask ‘why?’  Then, starting with your answer, ask ‘why?’ again, and repeat until you can go no further.  Now you have a root cause.

Why five?  There is no magic to five, but it does seem that you rarely need many more stages and too few steps will usually only take you to an intermediate cause.  Five seems to be at the sweet spot for many problems.

Fishbone Analysis

Also known as the Ishikawa (after Kaoru Ishikawa) Method, this is another way to help find causes.  But its emphasis is on breaking down the multitude of causes to an effect.  You represent the outcome (often unwanted) as the head of a fish, and then show/facilitate identification of as many causes as possible, representing each as a fishbone.

Fishbone (or Ishikawa) Analysis Step 1

Some causes are sub-categories or root causes of another cause, creating ever finer fishbones.

Fishbone (or Ishikawa) Analysis Step 2

SIPOC Analysis

SIPOC analysis looks for the source of a problem or poor performance in one of five places, with the:

  1. Supplier
  2. Inputs
  3. Process
  4. Outputs
  5. Customer


The Five Cs or 5C Process

It does not get simpler, conceptually, than this.  This will help you stabilise, maintain and improve a process or work environment.

  1. Clear Out
    Get rid of clutter and non-essential assets, materials, processes.
  2. Configure
    Create a tidy and effective working space:
    ’a place for everything, and everything in its place’.
  3. Clean and Check
    Keep everything clean and use the cleaning process to spot damage, faults and abnormal conditions.
  4. Conformity
    Ensures that everything conforms to the standards that have been set.
  5. Custom and Practice
    Ensure that everyone knows and follows the rules, and understands what purpose they serve.

Box Plots

Box Plots are a good way to plot data to see the effects of variation.  Rather than plot single data points, representing an average, such as the average height data for boys, below…

Average Heights of Boys (WHO data)

We can plot the ranges of heights for most boys (70%) with a box and nearly all boys (94%) with the bars.  This allows us to see two ranges on one chart.  Use the box for the commonly occurring range and the bars for either the whole range or, as here, for all but the extreme outliers, as in the chart below…

Range of Heights of Boys (WHO data) - 3rd, 15th, 85th and 797th percentiles

Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA)

Perhaps the most complex and sophisticated tool here, so, in a nutshell, we examine every possible failure mode and assign it a score.  Scores over a certain threshold lead the failure to be considered ‘critical’.

The score, or ‘Risk Priority Number’ is given by:

RPN = Severity x Occurrence x Detection

The individual scores for severity (how bad the fault is), Occurrence (how frequently it is likely to occur) and Detection (how hard it is to spot prior to release to customer) are calculated separately according to standard tables.  Examples of these tables are on the DMAIC Tools website, here.

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