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Attribute Analysis

Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 41: Attribute Analysis


A popular game in creativity classes is to ask the attendees to make a list of all of the possible uses of a paper-clip. The more creative people will construct a much longer list than other people. The basic technique that they use is Attribute Analysis, which is a simple method of breakdown and analysis.

Before coming back to the paperclip, consider the simple engineering task of making improvements to a chair. The attributes of the chair include the material used to make it, its shape, weight, rigidity, load-bearing capability, and so on. Attribute analysis simply asks how the attributes can be varied, thinking creatively about these variations and how these vair. We can thus use wood, metal or plastic (but how about paper?), make the chair large or small (what about a pet’s chair?), flexible or rigid (how could you turn a briefcase into a chair?) and so on.

A more detailed approach is not only to look at the overall functions but to break the thing down and look at the component parts in the same way. Thus the attributes of the chair legs may include simple, measurable factors such as length, thickness and density. More complex attributes may also be considered, such as shape, connection method and load-bearing characteristics. You could even look at the aesthetic attributes, including texture, colour and attractiveness.

Breakdown trees can be used to help this decomposition and investigation of attributes. The diagram below shows a partial breakdown of a standard office workspace. What is revealed is large numbers of possible areas for innovation..

Innovation is often considered problematic in service industries and other less tangible areas, but these, too, have attributes with which you can invent. Deliveries have timescales and reliability, customers have satisfaction and loyalty, processes have cost and capability, and so on.

So, back to the paperclip. Its attributes include: light, metal, small, flexible, strong, magnetic, long and thin, sharp end, smooth corners, springiness, flat, plentiful. Some inventions could include a fishing hook (flexible, sharp, strong), wedding ring (smooth, light), murder weapon (sharp, strong), musical instrument (springiness, long, plentiful) and so on.

An extension to the paperclip game is to divide the delegates into groups of two teams and ask each to list ten things you can do with a paperclip and ten things you cannot do with a paperclip. The more creative groups will finish the ‘can’ list first and might struggle with the ‘cannot’s, whist the negative-minded groups will reverse this, easily finding what cannot be done. This in itself can be an interesting discussion point (although be careful about ‘turning off’ the negative groups). After discussing attribute analysis, you then get the teams to swap lists and explain how the other team’s ‘cannots’ can be overcome. Very quickly, they will discover that it is almost impossible to find things that the paper clip cannot do. Still do not believe this? Let us try a few. You cannot eat it? Make it out of bread. You cannot live in it? Make a huge and hollow one out of industrial piping. You cannot read one? Make it out of printed paper.

If this all sounds like cheating then you are absolutely right. If cheating means breaking the rules and creativity is absolutely about cheating. Look at the attributes and challenge the rules. A simple formula that can lead to amazing inventions.


Next time: Guided imagery


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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