Brown paper and Post-it notes

I have been playing with brown paper and Post-it notes for the best part of 25 years, and people often ask why I still bother to do this. The answer is simple: because it works.

They say, “Can’t we save time by getting someone to do it for us beforehand?” or, “Can’t we get into the 21st century and do it electronically?”. The answers to both these questions is “Yes”. But if we do this then we are missing the point of the brown paper and Post-it notes. It’s not really about the paper… It’s about creating a common view of reality – by engaging all the people that really matter.

Change is tough

If you want to change something, start by enlisting the help of the people that will be most affected by the change. There will always be people who think that there is nothing wrong with the situation today. Or people who have a vested interest in keeping the status quo. There are also people who will be defensive or focus on why a change won’t work. And those who will actively resist any change.

With all these different perspectives to consider, it’s a wonder that anybody can change anything these days. The good news is that by using brown paper and Post-it notes, and a bit of creativity, you can work through all of these issues, and together, figure out what best to do about them.

You don’t need a ton of experience

This sounds simple, and really it is. You don’t have to be a charismatic or persuasive facilitator, or even have a ton of experience. All you have to do is to lead the team in describing the current situation in detail, using the brown paper and Post-it notes.

There is not one prescribed way to do this. It depends on what problem you are trying to fix. The trick is to identify all the steps in the processes the team uses, from end to end. And then make these visible.

Make things visible

Unless you have mapped your process at some time beforehand, the likelihood is that it has never been seen all together before. Just the mere act of displaying it in one place will make things like disconnects immediately visible. People develop the most creative work-arounds to deal with gaps or things that don’t work in their processes. Because they have to.

Once you have highlighted any obvious breaks within your process, take each step, in turn and ask the team “What are the issues or opportunities associated with this step?”. Doing this in a structured way makes sure you can control the pace of the ideas. And get input from everybody in the team. Often, the team will build on each other’s ideas as they are presented. And this leads to really creative solutions. Also, this is an opportunity to capture everybody’s views. Even if they are polar opposites.

The purpose at this stage is to brainstorm all ideas, not to decide what will be done.

Get creative!

The final part of building the brown paper is to capture as much data and detail as you can. This will help you describe how the process works and its current performance levels. It could be quality data, numbers of people involved at each step, scrap or waste numbers, efficiency or speed data and copies of all documentation used (e.g. forms or procedures). Take photos of important pieces of equipment or methods and stick these on the paper too. The more visual you can make the process, the better. Get creative!

Quick wins

By the time you get to this point, every member of the team has the same level of knowledge of the process. You also have already developed some shared views of what could be done to improve it. Even if there are still deeply polarized views as to how to change the process overall, you will be able to find common ground within the detailed steps. Choose one or two things that the team can do immediately to make the process better. Create a couple of quick wins, and get them done. Then decide on the next couple of things to do – and keep going.

Process ownership

So yes, you can do the process map before the team get there. But you will miss out on creating the deep level of understanding of the process, with everybody learning at the same time. You might even end up with the wrong process steps because it was not built by the process experts. And yes, you can do it immediately electronically and show it on a screen so everyone can see it. But you will miss out on people writing on the brown paper Post-it notes themselves, therefore fully owning the steps and their ideas. In effect you take control away from the people who actually own the process, and increase any tension that exists – rather than working together to resolve it.

Eli Sharp Consulting, LLC.


  1. Thomas Denaro on October 28, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    Nice job Eli!!! Great piece. I hope all is well with you!

    • Eli Sharp Consulting, LLC. on October 28, 2020 at 10:09 pm

      Thanks Tom! All is well here – hope all is well with you too 🙂