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In the Eye of a Brainstrom

February 13, 2007
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The photographs showed the situation clearly enough: a mom struggling to hold a cup of hot java while leaving her local coffee bar and, at the same time, keep her child from bolting into traffic.

    The series of photos could have been taken by a private investigator to prove that his client’s ex-wife is a frazzled and unfit mother. In fact, the photo was staged for the benefit of the media by employees from Pitney Bowes’ Advanced Concepts and Technology group in Shelton, Connecticut, to give an idea of what they do.

    The crew of engineers, anthropologists and inventors will be working to develop solutions for, among other health care initiatives, the personal health record being created by Dossia, the joint organization founded by Pitney Bowes, Intel, Wal-Mart, BP and Applied Materials.

    The goal of the session was to de¬monstrate how the group takes a problem—in this case the hazards of a caring for a child while juggling coffee —and brainstorms a potential solution for a customer by focusing on the needs of the user. In this case, that customer could be a manufacturer wanting to come up with a breakthrough cup design.

    In a real brainstorming session, each person in the 10-member team would have their own collection of photos, videos and notes, which they’d taken while observing companies and people in their natural environment. That’s the approach they used several years ago when developing better ways for organizing the flow of information in hospitals. Several members have taken acting classes to help them better re-enact scenarios and possible solutions to "get a feel for the problem," says Tom Foth, senior principal engineer.

    Within seconds of presenting the coffee-dilemma photos, ideas started coming.

    "I see a need for a drive-through," engineer Alan Rosen said.

    "Or a button that opens my door automatically so I don’t have to fumble," said Darryl Rathbun, a senior inventor.

    At that point, Jonathan Wolfman, a consultant who works closely with the group, felt compelled to say to the reporter sitting in on the session, "Brainstorming seems very chaotic, but in fact it’s very disciplined."

    The group follows rules of engagement for brainstorms: There is no such thing as a bad idea. And since "it’s easier to tame a bad idea" than come up with a good one, the team sets a high quantity quota: 50 ideas in 20 minutes. Go!

    The ideas pour forth: the coffee cup sling, the coffee cup backpack with straw, the coffee ball you can dribble out to your car (while it mixes milk, coffee and sugar), the coffee cup with two handles (one for the parent, one for the child), the jet-pack coffee cup that hovers but is magnetically attracted to stay near the parent, and so forth.

    Often, prototypes create more break¬throughs. Pitney Bowes recently created a method that uses a standard inkjet printer to print lines equipped with a radio frequency identification, or RFID, tag that allows the conductive ink to act as wires. The creative process culminated in nine patents.

    "The point of prototyping is that wonderful accidents happen that take the concept further," Foth says,

    As for the floating coffee cup, that’s still a work in progress.

Workforce Management, January 29, 2007, p. 16 -- Subscribe Now!

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