If you’ve been in business for a while, you’ve probably already had to work with affinity diagrams more than once. It’s a very useful tool and despite being half a century old, it’s aged quite well and still has a prominent place in many companies’ workflows. A lot of work has been simplified and streamlined with the help of the affinity diagram, but how exactly did it come to be, and who’s responsible for it?
Affinity diagrams are known under a different name in some circles – the KJ method – referring to the original inventor of the tool, Jiro Kawakita. They were originally designed as a tool to help groups of people reach a consensus on a difficult topic, and even though the diagram is a very basic tool without any fancy bells and whistles, it still gets the job done perfectly in this regard.
Working with Subjective Data
The important point is that affinity diagrams have to be based on some workable data, subjective facts and not the opinions of people. There is a commonly used anecdote used to explain how the KJ method has evolved, describing a military exercise in the US Army some time ago. In it, commanders were tasked with predicting enemy movements. It turned out that alone, their analyses were very far from the actual mark, but when each of them was given the opportunity to review what others had come up with, the situation suddenly became much better, despite the fact that no real new information was introduced.
That’s the goal of affinity diagrams too – to consolidate multiple different points of view in a way that makes sense across the board. It has gone through some iterations over time and the method has been simplified somewhat since its original inception, but in the end, its main point remains the same. It allows you to combine information from multiple sources – sometimes conflicting ones – and get a better overview of the current situation by taking all those factors into consideration with appropriate weights.
Does it Really Work?
An obvious question that can arise from all of this would be about the efficiency of the method, and its actual reliability. Can we really trust the affinity diagram to consolidate multiple different points of view so effectively? There have been multiple experiments over the years, as many people have tried to verify the legitimacy of the claims of those who support the use of affinity diagrams. And so far, we keep seeing the same story over and over again – the method simply works.
There are a few caveats, however. Most importantly, there are going to be some significant differences in the outcome depending on how the method is carried out exactly. Following a standardized multi-step strategy is recommended, and even though affinity diagrams leave a lot of freedom for experimentation, it’s good to know that you’re following some rigid system that can produce expected results.
Consistency is key in implementing the KJ method effectively, and if you end up modifying your approach, you should do your best to document all changes and come up with a modified plan of action. Otherwise, even if you do come across a good improvement that works better in your specific case, it might end up lost the next time you apply the method.
Affinity diagrams have been around for quite a while, but few people realize where they come from and what kinds of developments they’ve seen over time. They’re a very important tool when working with larger teams of people, or even smaller ones where there is still a lot of misunderstanding between the different members. It’s easily one of the best ways to come up with a solution that works well enough for everyone, even when there are some significant disagreements between the different points of view.