Affinity Analysis

Affinity analysis is a process that helps groups gather a large amount of information and organize it on the basis of affinities (natural relationships). This technique allows participants find connections among ideas, rather than letting pre-determined categories determine or constrain the generation of ideas.

The affinity technique consists of two components—individuals first brainstorm on ideas and then organize them into natural categories. This process generates a lot of ideas and also organizes the overall picture of the issue (such as a problem) to understand its relationship to other areas. Like many other aspects of improvement, this process inspires feelings of ownership and participation for group members.

When to Use Affinity Analysis

An affinity analysis can help an improvement team or group organize many different change ideas or items in a short period of time. Groups often use affinity analysis to generate ideas about problems or areas for improvement, causes, alternative solutions, and barriers to change. This type of analysis is mainly useful when issues appear too large or complex, when consensus is desired, or when creative ideas are needed. Because everyone’s idea is included and groupings of ideas are done by the team, it helps develop consensus. It is also useful for making sure that no ideas are lost.

How to Use Affinity Analysis

Step 1. State the issue or question to be considered and assure that all participants are clear on what is being asked. Give participants a few minutes to think about their responses silently.

Step 2.  Generate and record ideas.  Ask each person to record each idea on a separate slip of paper or Post-it note or card. Each idea or item should be recorded on its own.

Step 3. Place the slips of paper in any order in a manner that allows everyone to see all of them (for example, posted on a wall, or laid on a large table).

Step 4. Ask team members to sort the individual ideas into relationships or categories by moving the slips of paper around; members should keep the discussion brief. After a while, the team members will stop moving items around. 

  • If the group is large, have the members work in groups of three or four to arrange the slips. Allow each group to work for a few minutes then call the next group of three or four. Let the groups continue in turns until they are no longer moving items around.
  • Do not force an item into a category; it is fine to have categories with only a single item.
  • If an item is constantly being moved back and forth between two categories, either clarify its meaning or make a copy and put it in both categories.

Step 5. Develop a name for each category that captures the essential meaning of all the items in the category. When doing this, look first among the items in the category. If no single item captures the idea clearly, create one that does. Write it on a slip of paper.

Step 6. Transfer the category titles and lists from all the slips of paper onto a sheet of paper; use lines to separate the categories.

Step 7. If needed, use prioritization tools to select from among categories.

Points to Remember

Sorting should be done as silently as possible. Discuss the items on the slips of paper only for clarification.

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