ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

Online Edition — March 2003

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The Power of Negative Evidence
Most of us have spent considerable time facilitating and coaching problem-solving teams. Although this role is extremely rewarding and often fun, too, it also involves several challenges that seem to occur in a majority of teams.

When team members begin their problem-solving journey, they usually are brimming with ideas on solutions that might be implemented. One of the first tasks that facilitators/coaches often face is to explain the difference between remedies and preventive solutions. Once this point is made, team members are asked to set their ideas aside and begin a methodical analysis that includes defining the problem in measurable terms, gathering data about the current situation, and determining the root cause. Only after the root cause is identified are team members allowed to turn their energies toward creative solutions.

The Tuckman model of team development tells us that teams go through four growth stages:

  • “Forming,” where team members are asking: Why are we here? What are the other people like? Will they like me?
  • “Storming,” where team members begin to test how much power and control they personally have over the group.
  • “Norming,” where the team settles down and begins to focus on how it functions.
  • “Performing,” when team members have developed smooth working relationships and focus on how to best accomplish the task.

Generally, these stages are associated with the development of group dynamics and interpersonal relationships, but it is interesting to note that the “storming” stage usually coincides with the teams’ efforts shifting away from solutions and toward the data gathering and analysis steps associated with root cause determination. Similarly, team members frequently begin to “perform” after the root cause has been identified and solution proposals are invited. It seems clear, therefore, that any methods that can be used to speed up the analytical steps of the problem-solving process are likely to increase the pace of team development, too.

One way that seems to help teams move more energetically through the steps involves “flipping the perspective” of the analysis. Instead of systematically building a positive trail of evidence that leads directly toward the root cause, the team is encouraged to prove what causes are not at the root of the problem. For some reason, many team members find it more exciting to jump around disproving causes than to follow the scientific method!

To put this approach to work, the team defines its problem and then immediately brainstorms a comprehensive list of potential causes that are shown on a cause-and-effect diagram. The figure at right shows a simplistic diagram for the problem, “the car won’t start.”

Then the team members review each cause and divide it into one of four groups, as follows:

  • Easy to disprove—causes that can be eliminated with a cursory inspection and virtually no analysis (e.g., no key, not in park or neutral).
  • Fairly easy to disprove—causes that require the collection and simple analysis of readily available facts and data (shown in italics on the diagram).
  • Not so easy to disprove—causes that require the collection and analysis of facts and data that may require tests or experiments to disprove (shown in bold on the diagram).
  • Somewhat difficult to disprove—causes that require the collection and analysis of facts and data that may require complex tests or experiments and the assistance of outside resources to disprove (e.g., starter, alternator).

The team members bounce around in their data collection and analysis efforts, disproving the potential causes in order of increasing difficulty—until they find a cause that can’t be disproved. At that point, they switch to collecting positive evidence to prove the potential cause.

In the example, simple causes such as the absence of a key or the car being in the wrong gear are quickly ruled out—or discovered to be true, resulting in a rapid solution of the problem. As the causes move up in level of difficulty, more data are required to disprove the cause absolutely. For instance, the cause “out of gasoline” may seem obvious, but it takes a controlled experiment where a measured amount of fuel is placed in the tank to prove that the gauge is calibrated properly. The causes “starter” and “alternator” take specialty-testing equipment that generally requires a repairperson’s intervention.

Try this approach the next time you facilitate/ coach a problem-solving team, and see if the team members grow a beautiful garden without a long stormy season.

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