Affinity Diagrams - Seeing What Matters

Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” What’s New?

The affinity diagram is a graphical technique for seeing patterns and reaching a consensus in a group process that builds up from the details into a complete picture that provides insight based on facts. This diagram, which consists of groups and hierarchies of sentences, is very easy to create and provides one of the fastest ways to reach a common consensus on any complex situation. The steps to create an affinity diagram are fairly straightforward and start with a team member who would want to have a question answered. What is new about this technique is that a consensus is reached rapidly because it rests on a fact-based analysis of the problem and provides a documented outcome.

What Is the Tool? Affinity Diagram (Language Analysis/KJ Diagram)

Francis Bacon said that a prudent question is one half of wisdom. This is very true in this case as well. Often the questions used to frame an affinity diagram are in the form of “What” questions. For example, “What are the root causes that led to the delay of our last platform release?” The project manager gets the team together and asks them to review this theme and to discuss it. Then using 3 x 3 Post-it notes, each team member writes a complete sentence that addresses the theme. It is best to use black markers and write in all capitals, so the Post-it notes are easy to read from a distance. These sentences on the Post-it notes should be fact-based, use multi-value language (i.e. not “always” or “never”), and have low level of abstraction (i.e. they are very granular and express detailed elements that address the theme). For example, a relevant point for the theme above might be, “The lead architect was removed from the project three weeks after starting and was not replaced.”

The target is about 20 to 25 notes. Typically, this might be three to four notes for each person in a group of seven. The group arranges the notes on a flip-chart paper in groups of three or fewer (one note is called a “lone wolf”). This grouping process is done silently and typically proceeds apace until at some point the grouping naturally stops. If there’s a conflict, the project manager will jump in and try to form the right grouping with the consensus of discussion, but this should happen infrequently. Then the team adds to each group of two or three notes a title statement that expresses their essence.

After this step, an omissions check is performed where the team steps back and looks at the big picture to see if in fact any key elements addressing the theme were not written down. Often some of the biggest insights come from this step, so it is important to include this check. In order to get a sense of priority of the different groups, the leader would ask each member to place marks with a pencil on the lower right-hand corner of three (each member gets three votes) of the groups (or lone wolves). Marking the most important groups in addressing the theme in question should be done simultaneously, so one team member doesn’t influence the other. The end result is a diagram that shows the most relevant items along with the top three groups based on group voting. For posterity, it’s a good idea to take a photograph of the diagram and convert it to PowerPoint.

What Are the Benefits?

This process provides a visual representation of the key drivers that answer a particular theme. Secondly, it’s very quick to execute, so two to three hours should be sufficient. Thirdly, it helps form a consensus rapidly without iteration and without a lot of arguing. Finally, it supports a wide range of major functions within the organization including product development, research, process improvement, strategy, and product planning and requirements.

Which Business Problems Do We Solve?

Many issues in real life and business are not quantitative, but rather involve words that are qualitative. This tool effectively deals with language data and is one of the best techniques for establishing future direction and providing vision or guidance on how to move forward in collective fashion by getting everyone on the same page with a common vision. It helps answer questions such as:

  • What are the reasons that led the quality of the last release to be below our standards?

  • What are the root causes for the sales performance to be below forecast?

  • What are the issues that prevented the rapid adoption of the new customer requirements management system?

What Are some Considerations?

For this to be a good process, you need the right people in the room. If you don’t have a skilled cross-functional team, you won’t get the kind of deep insight that this technique can offer. This is especially true if you are missing some of the key functional groups involved in the theme. In addition, a precise phrasing of the theme question is very important as described above. Finally, it’s a common mistake to write responses to the theme that are too general. This process works well when the individual fact statements are as detailed as possible.

Case Study

The web design team finally got the initial wireframe signed off, but it took a really long time - much longer than the project team expected. The project manager wanted to know how to speed up the project by learning from this last phase, so she decided to use this technique to understand what caused the delay and to prevent it from happening again. The theme question was, “What are the root causes that prevented the wireframe from being completed on schedule?” She brought together the five key members who worked on the project for a three-hour session. They discussed the theme and slightly changed it to add “and that would be relevant to the next phases of the project” to focus on what they can influence going forward. The project manager handed out Post-it notes to each team member to answer the theme question.

Each team member wrote down four to five reasons for the delay, each on a separate Post-it note. Then all five members silently grouped them together. They discussed and then voted on the title of each of the groupings. The resulting diagram was presented to management, and it showed that the changes that management had made with the project team assignments caused turnover and subsequent delay in the project. Fortunately, management conceded that this indeed was the root cause for the delay and agreed to put a firewall around the team so that the rest of the project could be executed without any changes in staff.