How to Start a Problem Solving Meeting

The Key to Developing Solutions Your Customers Will Love

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As a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, I have had the opportunity to facilitate hundreds of team problem-solving meetings. When I began my journey as a meeting facilitator, I started like most folks. I understood the importance of having an agenda and a focus for my meeting. My techniques mostly worked, and no one on my teams complained.

I think meetings are like most things we encounter in life: we don’t understand how good it can be when we are consistently exposed to the mediocre (the average). This is how I would describe most meetings. What made me stop and think more about my meetings was a pattern I started noticing. The teams would come up with some pretty good stuff. But when we began vetting the solutions with other stakeholders (or implementing the solutions), the team would encounter all kinds of resistance.

This took me in the direction of learning more about change management and team facilitation. I eventually became a certified change practitioner and received extensive training on communications and meeting facilitation. As I learned more, I started to recognize just how bad my meetings were. Today, I want to share with you a tool that I discovered. I think this tool has been the biggest factor in improving the outcomes of my meetings.

The Empathy Map

The tool is called “The Empathy Map.” I won’t go into the details of how it is created. I want to focus on how this map can be used to help a problem-solving team focus on the customer/stakeholder during their meetings. And I will also cover how you can use the information from this tool to reduce the likelihood of encountering resistance with stakeholders. Let’s take a look at the major parts of the map.

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Example Map from

The Empathy Map is a way to get your team to think about the problem from the customer or stakeholders’ perspective. In lean six sigma, we call this “the voice of the customer.” In gathering information on their viewpoint, you want to consider the following components:

Who Are You Empathizing With

Don’t skip this step. Don’t assume that everyone knows and understands who the customer or stakeholder is. I can tell you from facilitating this exercise with many teams that discussion on who the primary customer or stakeholder is can be interesting. The time you invest here will help the next steps go a lot smoother and will reduce the amount of discussion and possible debating that will ensue if you don’t clearly define the customer/stakeholders.

The Method

Before I explain the rest of the map, let’s look at the mechanics of how you will facilitate this exercise. It is vital that everyone participates and contributes individually without discussing results until the end of the exercise.

One of the reasons for facilitating this way is to help people in the room connect what they are thinking with others in the room. For example, if five out of seven people participating have the same response, the discussion after the exercise will create a point of collaboration between team members. “I wasn’t the only one thinking that.”

There are two ways you can do this.

With an in-person meeting, you can place a map on the wall (I usually draw a simple one), and have each team silently brainstorm onto post-it notes-one item per post-it note. I divide the map into the sections and facilitate each section giving enough time in each section for everyone to contribute.

If you are facilitating virtually or with a large group, I recommend using a tool like Mentimeter to collect responses. Again, you will facilitate each section separately, and I recommend displaying the results and discussing them for each section separately rather than waiting until the end.

Another important part is to make a rule that there will be absolutely no discussion during the brainstorming sessions, in other words, while they are generating the content. You don’t want groupthink to sneak in and that will happen if you allow talking during the brainstorming.

Now, let’s look at each section of the map and talk through how to facilitate each section.

What Do They Think and Feel

The first section is about tapping into the customer’s emotional and mental experience of the process or problem. Here, you want the team to generate a good list of feeling words and phrases that describe what they might be thinking. If I am dealing with a team that is highly analytical, I typically divide the thinking and feeling sections and facilitate them separately. I don’t want the thinkers in the room to skip on offering up some feeling content. The whole point of the exercise is to empathize with the customer, so make sure that your team contributes in this way. Do what you can to ensure that everyone contributes.

What Do They See

Here, you want to focus on what the customers are seeing happen in the process. For example, if this involved a process where people are waiting in line, contributors may say, “See people waiting in line.” Encourage participants to be brief in their descriptions here — three to five words, if possible. This will force participants to be concise and clear, which will make the discussions more lively as people add more context and detail.

What Do They Say

When facilitating this section, you may notice some of the same phrases under “What Do They Think” showing up again. Encourage participants to capture some of their own experience on what they’ve heard customers or stakeholders say. Again, if actual phrases are captured, you will notice more engagement in the discussion about this section. Team members begin to see common patterns in what customers are saying, which helps them better understand the collective experience around the process or problem.

What Do They Do

I have found this section to be the most difficult to facilitate, and also the most revealing. What you should see here is phrases describing how the customer or shareholder interacts with the process. For example, “complete the intake form” would be a description in a process where the customer submits a form in the process. Sometimes, you will have a mix of people in the room- some who understand how the process works for the customer and some who do not. This part can be enlightening for those who do not know how the customer uses the process. If your team struggles with this section, it is a good indication that the people in the room have low process knowledge and you may want to add team members or talk to subject matter experts familiar with the process before developing solutions with this team.

What Do They Hear

This section will reveal to you what customers are hearing from people in the process. It can also expose rumors that may be circulating. I have had some showstoppers show up in this section. Again, you have the potential for some pretty exciting discussions to ensue in this section. If you don’t get much content, it may reveal that the team isn’t aware of how the customer is experiencing their process. You will need to raise their level of awareness if that is the case. One of the ways to do this is by taking a “field trip” of the process and having them record their observations later. If you don’t get much content in this section and you plan to develop sustainable solutions with this team, you will need to increase their level of understanding of how the customer experiences the process.

Pain and Gain

I admit that this is not a part of the map that I use often. Most of the time, I facilitate it as a separate exercise from the Empathy Map. However, feel free to elect information for these sections if you believe it will provide value for your team.

Wrap-Up and Next Steps

Whether you decided to facilitate open discussion at the end of each section or at the end of the creation of the entire map, I encourage you to capture notes of discussion points. When I do this in-person, I flip-chart responses. Or you can use a graphic facilitator to capture the information. This will also create an artifact that the team could use throughout the process. If this is a virtual exercise, you can use a whiteboard so you can display what is being captured. The main point here is to ensure that what you capture is visible to everyone.

The Empathy Map itself, with all of the content captured for each section, can also become its own artifact. Make sure that you share the recorded artifact with your team after the meeting. I have found that presenting this before each team discussion helps to create a focus on what matters: the customer.

I hope that you have enjoyed this explanation of how I use empathy maps to capture the voice of the customer.

Would you like to hear more about team facilitation? Let me know in the comments. And share your experience with this map.

💡Trainer📢Speaker📝Blogger🎯Certified Professional Coach📈Lean Six Sigma Black Belt💥ASQ Certified Manager of Quality/Org Excellence 👉

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