How to Problem Solve with a Virtual Team

By Ron Pereira

Brainstorming, done correctly, can be extremely powerful.

In a traditional brainstorming session a group of people normally come together with a bunch of Post-It notes and/or a white board. Folks often log their ideas on said Post-It notes and stick them to the wall.

But what happens in a virtual environment? In other words, how can a group of people that work in different locations collaborate and problem solve?

Well, this is the exact situation the Gemba Academy team finds themselves in on a regular basis since our team is pretty much evenly split between Texas and California.

Enter Trello

In order to virtually collaborate we leverage many different tools including Skype, Google Hangouts, and a powerful (and free) tool called Trello.

Trello is a cloud based tool that allows teams to collaborate by creating “boards.” We use Trello for many things such as how to share improvement ideas, track projects, etc.

But, in this article, I want to share how we use Trello to work through a problem solving exercise.

Clarifying the Problem

Now, while we’re far from perfect we do our best to follow the Practical Problem Solving process.

First, we do our best to clarify the problem, break the problem down, and then set SMART targets.

Analyzing Root Causes

At this point all team members are asked to reflect on the problem, or problems, and document their own ideas as to what could be causing the issues.

We like for everyone to initially do this on their own so no one is biased by others.

Once everyone has a day or two to do this self reflection we come back together via Skype or Google Hangout. This allows us to see each other through web cams, etc. While this may not sound like that big of a deal I really believe it’s vitally important to see one another.

So, once we’ve all arrived the facilitator (often Kevin Meyer for us) opens up a blank Trello board that looks something like we see in Figure 1 (click image to enlarge).

Figure 1
Figure 1

At this point the facilitator will ask each person to share their ideas on what some potential root causes might be.  I stress potential since, at this point, we truly are brainstorming so wild ideas are just fine.

As ideas are shared the facilitator documents each of them as new Trello cards which, for us, serve as virtual Post-It notes!  The facilitator does their very best to not paraphrase, and when necessary, asks the person with the ideas to slow down so they can accurately capture the idea.

At this point, the Trello board begins to look like Figure 2 (click image to enlarge).

Snip20151105_3
Figure 2

Once one person is done the facilitator moves on to the next person and asks them to share their ideas as to what the potential root causes might be.

In a recent Gemba Academy problem solving “jam session” a team of 4 people generated close to 75 potential root causes which, initially were all logged in a single Trello column.  Figure 3 shows an example of 20 ideas just to give you a point of reference.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Time for Affinity Diagram

Once the team is happy with their list of potential root causes it’s time to begin to organize the ideas into columns.  Some refer to this technique as affinity diagramming.

Basically, we’re looking for common themes or groups of ideas.  For example, in a manufacturing example some groups may consist of “Product Quality,” “Maintenance,” and “Safety.”

Once these groupings have names new Trello columns are created as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4
Figure 4

At this point, the team then discusses which group each potential root cause belongs to.  In some cases an “Other” group may need to be created.  Once the team agrees each card is simply moved to the appropriate column as shown in Figure 5.  You’ll notice the “Potential Root Causes” column is now empty.  It can be left to capture additional ideas or deleted if the team is happy with where they are.

Figure 5
Figure 5

Discussion Time

Now, what’s interesting is that, up to this point, there hasn’t been any “discussion” of what people think of the various ideas.  Instead, the group was only focused on capturing as many ideas as possible and then grouping them accordingly.

But, once we’re at this point it is time to begin open, and honest, discussion.  So, to start, the facilitator adds “Discussion” to each column so it’s clear where the discussion started.  Team members are now able to share their thoughts and opinions while also asking clarifying questions.

The facilitator documents these discussion points as accurately as possible since, we believe, this open discussion is the secret to successful problem solving.

To be clear, this discussion may take more than one meeting.  In fact, depending on the challenge at hand this entire problem solving process could take weeks or even months.

But, once all team members have shared their thoughts and ideas the Trello board may start to look something like we see in Figure 6.  Please note you may end up having more (or less) discussion cards than you do idea cards.  This is totally fine.  We just want to ensure that every team member has their say and gets all their questions answered.

Figure 6
Figure 6

Brainstorming Potential Countermeasures

Now then, once we’re at this point it’s time to finally move into my favorite part of problem solving… dreaming up potential countermeasures!

So, at this point, the team members begin to throw out ideas for how to potentially counter the various potential root causes.  Each team member can take a turn or everyone can begin to share ideas as they think of them.

But, as we show in Figure 7, a new section called “Potential Countermeasures” is added to each column and the various potential countermeasures are documented below this point.  Again, the number of countermeasures per column will vary depending on the circumstances.

Figure 7
Figure 7

Action Plan

Next, once the team has shared all of their potential countermeasure ideas… it’s time to document an action plan.  In some cases, this may mean creating a series of A3 documents.  And, in other cases, simple experiments can be assigned to team members and noted on the Trello board as we see in Figure 8.

Figure 8
Figure 8

No matter the process used it’s absolutely critical that an action plan of next steps be discussed and agreed upon… including when follow-up meetings will occur.

Problem Solving is Dynamic

Finally, it goes without saying that problem solving – in person or virtually – is most definitely a dynamic process.  As such, your Trello board (or whatever system you use) will most definitely change over time as experiments are completed and you, and your team, learn more about your process.

How Do You Problem Solve Virtually?

So, what do you think?  I’d be very curious to hear your thoughts on the approach shared in this article.

I’d also love to hear how you, and your virtual teams, go about problem solving in a virtual environment.

4 Comments

  1. Miguel Rivera

    November 6, 2015 - 8:18 am

    Great idea. We sometimes use net meeting white board and team members write ideas all over the white board. This makes it easy for the note taker but hard to categorize in same meeting.

    With Trello, the discussion part of each potential root cause can serve as 5 Whys root cause analysis

  2. Mark Graban

    November 13, 2015 - 8:45 am

    I like the way you’re using the virtual board there… a clever use of Trello.

    Our KaiNexus platform doesn’t work in that exact same way, but it’s designed for virtual teams to collaborate on improvement efforts. I could see the use of Trello to facilitate a live meeting, but then using KaiNexus to track and document the testing and evaluation of ideas, the data collection, recognition and sharing, that would take place in a way that would probably create a better permanent record than Trello.

  3. Milena

    November 26, 2015 - 11:33 am

    Is everyone in the meeting allowed to write on the board or just the facilitator?
    How is that Trello board different than opening an excel file and sharing it over any other virtual meeting tool?

    • Ron Pereira

      December 1, 2015 - 10:21 am

      Hi Milena, you can definitely use anything that can be shared and seen by others. We also use Google Drive Spreadsheets for other collaborative activities. But, we do love Trello since we use it for so many other things and it’s just so easy, and clean, to create new “cards” and move them around as if they’re post-it notes. But, to be sure, the software isn’t as important as the process – and discipline – of getting everyone thinking, talking, and working together. Does this help? Thanks for the comment!