Affinity for Diagrams

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 achieving 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 document and provides one of the fastest ways to create a common consensus about a complex situation.  Steps to create an affinity diagram are fairly straightforward and it starts with a team member who would want to have a question answered.  What is new about this technique is that consensus is achieved rapidly; 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 the 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 of the form of a “What” question, 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 and agree to it.  Then using 3 x 3 Post-Its® notes each team members writes a complete sentence that address the theme.  It is best to use black markers and write with all capitals so the Post-Its® are easy to read from a distance.  These sentences on the Post-Its®  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 the group of seven. The group arranges the notes on a flip chart paper in groups of three or less (never more than three and one is okay – this is called a lone wolf). This grouping process is done silently and typically is proceeds apace until at some point the grouping naturally stops.  If there’s conflict the project manager would jump in and try and form the right grouping with the consensus of discussion, but this should happen infrequently. Then the team titles each group of two or three with a title statement that express the essence of the two or three Post-Its®   below.

After this step, an omissions check is performed where the team steps back and looks at the big picture to see if in fact there any key elements that address the theme that 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 of the group to place marks with a pencil in lower right-hand corner of three (each member gets three votes) of the group sentences (or lone wolves).  Marking the most important groups in addressing the theme of this 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 good idea to take a photograph of diagram and convert it to PowerPoint

What are the Benefits?

The benefits of this process are that it provides a visual representation of the key drivers that answersa particular theme. Second, it’s very quick to execute so doesn’t take a long time to do this – two to three hours should be sufficient. Furthermore, it helps form consensus rapidly without iteration and without a lot of arguing.  Finally it’s good for a wide variety of issues ranging from product development, research, process improvement, strategy, product planning, and requirements.

What Business Problems Do We Solve?

Many issues in real life and business are not quantitative but involving words and are qualitative. This tool is a very good tool for dealing 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 the common vision.  It is useful to answer questions such as:

  • What were the reasons that the quality of the last release was below our standards?
  • What are the root causes for the sales performance to be below forecast?
  • What were the issues that prevented 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 good cross functional and skilled group of people you won’t get the kind of deep insight that this technique can deliver.  This is especially true if you are missing some of the key functional groups involved in the theme.  The theme question statement is very important as we described above.  Finally it it’s a common mistake to write responses to the theme which 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 is signed off but it took 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 would like to use this technique help solve this and prevent any issues from happening again. The theme question is “What are the root causes that prevented the wireframe from being completed on schedule”. She brought together the five core key numbers that 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 for project” to focus their problem-solving on what they can influence going forward.  The project manager handed out Post-Its®  notes to each team member and each member wrote up five reasons since there were five total team members.

They individually wrote them down and then as a group silently grouped them together. After they group them together they discussed the titles for each of the groupings and then voted on them on the groupings.  Out came a couple of clear winners this diagram. This was presented to management showing that changes that management had made with the project team assignments caused turnover and subsequent delay in the project team. Fortunately management agreed that this indeed was the root cause for the delay and agreed to put the firewall around the team so that the rest of the project could be executed without any changes in staff.