#478  from Innovative Leader Volume 9, Number 7          July 2000

Use of “TRIZ” to Solve Problems
by Jack Hipple

Mr. Hipple is Senior Consultant, Idea Connections, Urbana, IL (phone 217-344-2571; fax  217-344-2572; jwhinnovator@earthlink.com; www.innovation-triz.com/).

Over the past ten years, a radical new approach to problem solving has emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States.  This methodology is known as “TRIZ,” an algorithm for a Russian phrase, the “theory of solving problems inventively.”  It is based on the premise that most technical problems and contradictions which people deal with every day, if generalized sufficiently, have already been solved by others in another field.  If one generalizes a problem and searches through the patterns of previous inventions, it is possible to rapidly solve many different types of problems that previously may have taken many months or years to solve.  In addition, these same inventive principles are finding their way into the organizational and managerial problem-solving repertoire as well.

TRIZ was discovered by a patent examiner for the Russian navy in the 50’s and 60’s.  In his role as a government patent examiner, Genrich Altshuller recognized two very important things.  First, truly significant inventions came about when someone resolved a very difficult contradiction.  Secondly, the inventive principles used in resolving these contradictions were used over and over again across many different industries and technological areas, unbeknownst to the inventors in these diverse fields.  Altshuller spent his life organizing, collating, and making these principles accessible to future inventors.  Schools were established to teach this methodology and it is now actively used by many industries.  It is also being taught by several consulting firms and has taken the form of software products as well. 

The first form of TRIZ was a simple hand-drawn contradiction table which allowed the problem to be described as two property contradictions (for example, an automobile engineer or designer would like both fuel economy and weight at the same time).  The table would then show the typical problem-solving principles used to resolve the contradiction.  With the advent of modern software, it is also possible to show a picture of examples where this contradiction has been resolved and to greatly accelerate both the descriptive and retrieval process.  There are now over 400 identified inventive principles. With software products such as The Innovation Workbench, one can produce thousands of inventive examples alongside the inventive principles.

There are fewer than a dozen major problem-solving techniques that use the 400 inventive principles.  We will look at a few of these techniques to illustrate the power of TRIZ, as well as to show the application to “soft” organizational problems.

Ideality

The first basic principle of TRIZ is that of ideality.  This is a simple, but very powerful concept which states simply that all systems and organizations move toward ideality over time by resolving, either in design or in operation, all contradictions which are inherent to them.  Our western culture is so used to compromising that this basic concept usually escapes us because we assume it is unachievable.  Engineers and managers, in particular, start compromising on system and organizational issues long before they have thought about achieving breakthrough by overcoming all of the contradictions in a system.  It is interesting that children, who don’t understand all the reasons why something cannot be done, easily understand this concept and can generate TRIZ solutions when adults cannot.  All organizations and systems evolve toward ideality with time, and the problem-solving principles used are known and predictable.  One way of thinking about this concept is to envision the ratio of useful functions achieved by a system divided by its negative functions or costs.  The truly ideal system accomplishes its function without even existing. For example, a simple corrosion test that requires both a sample and an expensive container to hold the corrosive fluid and the sample can be “idealized” through the use of the sample, itself, as the container (i.e., put the corrosive fluid inside the sample).  This eliminates the entire holding system (performs its function without existing).  The current move toward using the Internet to provide subscriptions in place of surface mailings is another example.

Resources

The second fundamental TRIZ concept is that of resources.  Every system or organization has resources that are not being totally used, or more frequently, not even identified.  The recognition and use of undiscovered resources frequently resolves contradictions.  Let’s take the simple example of a current-carrying wire and state the fact that we have an unspecified problem in the air space around the wire.  If a group is then asked to identify what resources are within the system to solve this undefined problem, they will typically summarize the resources as the current, the voltage, the air around the wire, the wire itself, and little else.  From a TRIZ perspective, there are many additional resources including not just the wire, but all of its geometrical aspects (diameter, circumference, surface area, and surface roughness).  The air around the wire isn’t just air, but oxygen, nitrogen, argon, carbon dioxide, and other trace gases.  The current and the nature of the current have additional functionality as well.  All of these resources can, of course, be reacted or mixed with another to make additional resources.  It is fairly easy to get a group of people to expand the list of resources, from the easy five or six to more than thirty, with this kind of focused thinking.  The same thing happens in TRIZ problem- solving sessions.  In the application of this approach in the organizational and management sense, we always find a significant number of additional resources in the people and systems we have in the organization.  Most peoples’ talents are underutilized and in many cases we don’t even know the full extent of the talents of our people.

Contradictions

A third fundamental TRIZ concept is in the dealing with contradictions though the use of separation principles.  The four basic separation principles, which are among the 400 problem solving operators mentioned earlier, are:

Separation in Time.  When faced with an organizational or technical conflict, consider separating the contradiction in time.  For example, in trying to organize a management system with conflicting scheduling demands, consider allocating specific time slots to focus on certain areas.  In the technical arena, consider how engineering systems such as airplane spoilers change their operation or function as a function of time and their need at any specific point in time.

Separation in Space.  Frequently, conflicts can be resolved by separating them in space.  When there are potential conflicts within organizations involving acquisitions or confidential business discussions, the specific project group is often physically separated from the bulk of the organization.  In many chemical-processing systems, application of energy or mechanical forces is restricted to only certain areas within the process to avoid having negative effects where they are not desired.

Separation Between Parts and the Whole.  In application of this principle, a system or organization is designed to have a different behavior at different levels or subsets.  Most large companies are organized by business and functional structure, rather than the old-fashioned hierarchical structure that was common decades ago.  The smaller pieces of the organization are agile and fast while the parent organization is slower and more conservative in the handling of long term financing, corporate strategy, etc.  In the technical arena, many technical systems have very different designs at the micro level vs. the macro level.  The common bicycle chain is an excellent example of this--the chain is very rigid at the micro level and very flexible at the macro level.

Separation Upon Condition.  In the application of this separation principle, a system or organization is designed to change its behavior or response as a function of what is presented to it.  For example, many separation devices are designed in such a way as to respond to differences in viscosity, particle size, or temperature.  The application of this principle in the management and organizational sense would imply, for example, that an organizational structure or its individual people would change their processes or behavior as a function of external business conditions.  Many organizations maintain special task forces which are only activated by special circumstances such as public relations concerns, safety or environmental crises, or special business conditions.

Repeating Patterns

The last, and potentially most significant, principle of TRIZ is that not only are the same problem-solving principles used repeatedly, but there are patterns of invention that continuously repeat themselves.  What this means is that many types of product inventions can be predicted and used to better plan technology budgets and work.  It also means that almost any patent application can be improved by expanding its claims, and that there are more ways than first appear to get around an existing patent.

Two of the most basic of these lines of evolution are:

1) The transition from rigid to flexible to wave technologies.  This goes on all around us and is best illustrated by looking at the methods used to point to items in presentations.  Many years ago teachers and speakers used rigid stick pointers.  Then flexible, collapsible metal pointers came into being which could be tucked in a pocket and quickly expanded to full pointer size.  Now laser pointers exist which require no mechanical extension at all.  Each of these inventions was predictable and required different technical skills from the previous invention.  This also points out the use of lines of evolution to plan hiring and technical recruiting. For example, each of these different technologies would require different skills from wood machining to flexible mechanical joining/welding to laser design, respectively.

2)  The transition from mechanical to thermal to chemical to electronic to electromagnetic fields of energy application.  One only has to look at cooking, heating/cooling, and technical computing to see this line of evolution traced over and over again.  Again, this can be used to plan the next generation of research, where to be looking for new technological advancements, and what meetings and conventions to attend.

As can be seen, the TRIZ methodology has a number of key elements that can be used to solve very difficult technical and organizational problems, understand more clearly how to approach contradictions, and plan the evolution of systems and technology.  The TRIZ methodology is in its infancy and has a bright future as its applications increase and as its fundamental principles are taught and extended by the educational system.  For more information on TRIZ, browse www.ideaconnections.com, www.triz-journal.com, and www.aitriz.com; or read And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared by G. Altshuller (Technical Innovation Center, Worchester, MA, 1996) and an article in Machine Design (October 12,1995, 56-67).

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