Have you ever had a really complex project or problem with a lot of moving parts? Or, you are trying to make sense of a bunch of different stakeholder needs and requirements? Have a ton of qualitative data and need to sort the data? Charting a course for a new product? In short, you are trying to bring order of what is seemingly chaos.
If you are a visual learner like me, it is usually helpful to “see” the problem. The visual may be a kanban board, graph or an infographic that allows you to quickly grasp the idea. The “KJ method” named after Japanese anthropologist Jiro Kawakita is a way of synthesizing large amounts of unordered information such as ideas, opinions, feedback etc. and grouping and distilling it until meaningful understandings, insights and themes emerge. In Japan, last name comes first. Developed in the 1960s, the KJ method has become one of the most popular management and planning practices across various professional fields and industries including social science, scientific research, user experience analysis, product development and project management. It allows participants to see patterns and relationships across what seems like unrelated observations, facts or statements.
Born in Tsu City on May 11, 1920, son of banker Kyudayu Kawakita and his wife Tame Ito. Growing up in Kyoto, his family stressed the importance of education. At the age of seven he was placed in the Second Branch of Fuzoku Shogakko, the primary school attached to Kyoto Prefectural Teachers’ Training College.
By the end of his five years there—the school had an accelerated program of five rather than six years—his scientific inclinations had already manifested themselves by an interest in plant collecting and hiking. After serving in World War II, Professor Kawakita felt the need to contribute to humanity in some way. He began by studying geography, temperature and agriculture. While visiting the Himalayan region in 1953, his ecological research further developed. His passion and background inevitably led him to focus on the relationship between humans and their landscapes. It was during this expedition that Professor Kawakita met people from Nepal and Tibet, who later became the focus of his lifetime field research. Receiving many awards and recognitions for his extensive work, He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1984 for his efforts in developing ways to bring Nepalese villagers clean drinking water. In his acceptance, he wrote “I believe, the way of true science coincides with the way of humanism. If this were not so, this so-called true science must be fundamentally reformed in the future.” Professor Kawakita continued to explore his diverse research activities and served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the kawakita Research Institute until his death in July, 2009 at the age of 89.
A fairly, low tech analytical procedure (I am a huge fan of low tech! see my post on paper prototyping) all you really need are some sticky notes, pens, a nice big blank wall, a pad for notes, and an open mind.
Here are the basic steps:
- Present the topic or define the goal or problem in the form of a question.
- Give the team index cards or sticky-notes
- Ask them to write an idea or issue per card, limit discussion
- Call out the ideas or issues and hang them on the wall
- Lead the team to sort the ideas or issues into categories without discussion
- Lead them labeling each group of cards, limit discussion
- Eliminate duplicate ideas
- Connect or highlight significant relationships, recurring themes or main ideas
- Once these are agreed upon begin discussion on new observations
Also known as an “Affinity Session”, it can be used to:
- Identify undefined or underlying issues
- Take complex situations and break them up into clear visual representations
- Create consensus and agreement among stakeholders
- Prioritize goals or steps to a solution
- Clarify relationships and/or cause and effect dynamics
- Reveal dimensions of a challenge
- Share knowledge with stakeholders in a collaborative way
- Bring various perspectives and expertise into alignment
I am not going to go into detail about the KJ method in this post. While there are small variations on how it can be used across disciplines, Jared Spool of UIE has provided a wonderful step by step walkthrough on how to use the KJ Method to establish UX/UI priorities and assist in decision making. That variation uses it as a strategy for a group activity with a facilitator, You can also use the method with other people’s ideas, for example if you have recently conducted a survey or interview and need to code and review the responses with your peers.
For those of you who prefer digital tools there are several products and techniques available to utilize the KJ Method. Discover 6 Sigma has created a free online tool that allows you to create “sticky note” like message blocks, sort them on a web page and print. Affinity diagram templates are available in popular office software such as Office 365 and Smartdraw. There are also paid tools such Board Thing https://boardthing.com/
And Real Time Board https://realtimeboard.com/templates/affinity-diagram/ emerging to assist in brainstorming for teams who are unable to meet in person or need to work remotely.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a eureka moment or are just trying to work through a problem with a fresh perspective, consider using the KJ method. Yes, people have been sorting ideas on paper for hundreds of years…perhaps it takes the true genius to bottle the obvious. Quite brilliant in its simplicity, Professor Kawakita often expressed to his students “Let the chaos speak for itself!”. Whether the organic intuitiveness of the method is hard coded wisdom from generations of family talks or corporate power sharing, we are grateful for Prof. Kawakita’s contribution to better problem solving.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
Resources and references:
Kawakita, Jiro • The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation • Honoring greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia. (2019, February 20). Retrieved from http://rmaward.asia/awardees/kawakita-jiro
The KJ-Technique: A Group Process for Establishing Priorities. (2004, May 11). Retrieved from https://articles.uie.com/kj_technique
Scupin, R. (1997). The KJ Method: A Technique for Analyzing Data Derived from Japanese Ethnology. Human organization, 56(2). doi: 10.17730/humo.56.2.x335923511444655
KAWAKITA Jiro｜Laureates. (2019, February 20). Retrieved from http://fukuoka-prize.org/en/laureate/prize/acd/kawakita.php
Affinity Diagram – Kawakita Jiro or KJ Method. (2017, January 29). Retrieved from https://project-management.com/affinity-diagram-kawakita-jiro-or-kj-method
Susumu Kunifuji Professor & Vice President, Japan Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, Kanazawa, Japan https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/f052/dd8a2944799690ac6176b94b2c7b4b036b81.pdf
Affinity Diagram – Discover 6 Sigma – Online Six Sigma Resources. (2019, February 20). Retrieved from http://www.discover6sigma.org/post/2009/02/affinity-diagram
Affinity – Discover 6 Sigma Lab. (2009, February 10). Retrieved from http://www.discover6sigma.org/d6slab/affinity
Real Time Board
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