October 2004

TRIZ: A new approach to Inventive Problem Solving

What is the biggest challenge you face as a leader?

  • Solving problems?
  • Resolving contradictions?
  • Developing ideas and concepts for new products, new ideas, or approaches?

What is TRIZ?

TRIZ (Russian acronym for "Theory of Solving Inventive Problems") is an inventive thinking and problem solving process. A brilliant Russian patent examiner, Genrich Altshuller, refused to accept the fact that invention and creativity were random acts. Altshuller thought it was illogical that the creative process, alone, was impossible to understand in a logical scientific way. He thought we should be able to teach the process for developing new, successful inventions.

Altshuller's vehicle for creating TRIZ was to study global patents, recordings of documented inventions and intellectual property throughout the world. In studying patent literature, he distinguished between mundane and trivial patents (with little inventive challenge), and those few patents (<10%) that were truly groundbreaking. After analyzing the groundbreaking patents, he identified a common set of inventive principles and processes used across numerous areas of technology. Altshuller codified these inventive principles to make them useful across various areas of technology and business.

Not until 1990 did TRIZ arrive in the US. Today, many Fortune 500 companies use TRIZ, including Proctor & Gamble, Dow Chemical, Hewlett-Packard and BMW. They use TRIZ to design better products, less complicated processes, understand disruptive market trends and improve their handling of intellectual property.

TRIZ has become an umbrella that covers a family of inventive concepts, tools and processes that have been used repeatedly to solve difficult problems and provide a general approach for inventive problem solving. This summary will review just a few of these principles and show how they are used in real problem solving situations.

TRIZ Principles

It is straightforward to think of an incremental improvement in a product, a cost reduction, incorporating digital technology, and Six Sigma quality. TRIZ encourages a different level of thinking. Executives want people and teams who can think outside-the-box. TRIZ promotes a set of principles and questions that help people do just that.

Inventive Principle #1 - Idealized Final Result

Most people are familiar with the puzzle of connecting the 9-dots with 4 straight lines -- lines must go outside the shape. TRIZ promotes thinking about how to connect the dots with no lines, as the ideal, and perhaps one line in actuality. TRIZ thinking asks, "How can the function or goal of a system be achieved without anything additional?" The answer may be very impractical, yet lead to 90% solutions, that are practical.

A specific example: a consumer product company sells a small, very flexible product, packaged in quantities of 10. An outside supplier manufactures the product and bundles it into ten's with rubber bands. The consumer products company unbundles and repackages it for final sale. The unbundling and repackaging steps caused many ergonomic injuries, non value-added costs, and the final packaging was still hard to use. The Idealized Result asks, "How can I get the product into the container all by itself, using resources already at hand?" This idealized result wasn't achieved but the thinking lead to a practical solution. The idea is wrapping 9 plastic products in the tenth one, and the tenth one is the final packaging - all done by the outside supplier. In addition, the human handling of the product is virtually eliminated, also allowing a more cost-effective sterilization process and a significant reduction in labor costs.

This started by simply asking the Idealized Result Question.

In strategy, Idealized Final Result forces us to both get out-of-the-box, and think strategically about where the box might be in the future. Consider -

  1. Products and systems that repair themselves instantly
  2. Products and services that market themselves to customers
  3. Inventory that replenishes itself
  4. Instantaneous auto insurance rating changes, based on speed and location of a car
  5. Prescription drugs that automatically adjust their effectiveness based on body chemistry encountered after ingestion
  6. Medical insurance claims paid when service is provided

Inventive Principle #2 - Less is More

Let's take another simple example. A machine operator's job, involving machining, cutting, etc. is being replaced by a robotic operation. In initial test operations, metal chips jammed the machine, and brought the robot to a halt in the new installation. Previously, the machine operator swept the metal chips away. Typical engineering thinking is to add something to the system to prevent the chips from entering the machine - as confirmed by using this problem with over a 100 different engineering groups. Typical solutions are an automatic broom, a hood, or a blower, generating additional complexity in terms of maintenance and operability.

The TRIZ concept of Ideal Final Result (Ideality) suggests an idealized design where the chips are removed by themselves using the resources at hand, without adding anything to complicate the system. Chips can fall away using a resource already present -- gravity. Simply turning the machine upside down solves the problem. In inventive problems solving, we often speak of "turning the problem on its head." TRIZ provides logic to help you do that.

TRIZ Principle #3 - Solutions already exist in fields remote from your own

Proctor & Gamble (P&G) is becoming adept in searching and applying technologies far removed from their core competencies. One technology helped Proctor & Gamble develop Crest WhitestripsT; another is the micro-motor inside the Crest SpinBrush TM . These inventions were developed far afield from P&G's businesses. P&G licensed them - a highly unusual move for a company that prides itself on self-discovery.

Just looking at the world of consumer products, one sees:

  • Subdivided paper towel sheets from Bounty just like the separated cheese sections sold by Kraft.
  • Upside down Heinz catsup bottle, with the cap on the bottom, is now the model for many thick, viscous liquids such as hair conditioners (another example of gravity doing the work).
  • Manufacturing invention used by Boeing that lifts seats into an aircraft assembly is a modification of a hay loader used in the 1700's.

TRIZ helps people define problems in terms of either frequently used or generally inventive principles. It enables searching for solutions outside their primary field of use. Within the TRIZ process, these principles are available in an organized, usable, and retrievable fashion.

TRIZ Principle #4 - Search out and resolve the fundamental contradictions

As mentioned previously, barriers to achieving an Idealized Final Result sometimes come in the form of contradictions. Other words for contradiction include dilemma, predicament, and catch-22. TRIZ suggests that the source of contradictions is in our framework of thinking. New thinking stimulated by TRIZ creates new possibilities. The famous contradiction, which is a foundation for modern physical sciences, is light is both a particle and a wave. Both are true, yet both cannot be true at the same moment in time. Below are examples of how resolving contradictions has created major new industry trends.

• Contradiction:

Need high work-in-process inventory to buffer manufacturing processes and low inventory for better utilization of capital.

Old Thinking:

Organize manufacturing floor by type of operation. (Requires high inventory and high capital investment.)

New thinking:

Leads to organizing the manufacturing floor by end-to-end process, (Just-in-time inventory management and Lean Manufacturing.)

•  Contradiction:

Need higher quality, which will increase costs and simultaneously need to lower costs.

Old Thinking:

Design à build à inspect à reject (results in higher quality with higher cost)

New thinking:

Leads to principles of Design for Quality and Design for Manufacturing (results in higher quality at lower cost)

•  Contradiction:

Providing better customer service by paying insurance claims promptly, which may mean paying more fraudulent claims.

Old Thinking:

Don't pay anything until completely verified (resulting in unhappy customers, expensive claims processing, limited fraud

New thinking:

Separate handling claims based upon criteria, which identifies the small percent of people or situations at risk. (resulting in good customer service, reduced total system costs, perhaps higher undetected fraud).

•  Technical    contradictions:

Need affordable, light weight yet strong materials. Reducing weight reduces strength.

Old Thinking:

New, expensive materials that are light weight and strong

New Thinking:

Copy structures taken from nature, such that removing material makes it stronger, e.g. honeycomb.

TRIZ has 40 Inventive Principles to solve challenging problems. Some examples are:

  1. Change when things happen - Time
  2. Change where things happen - Space
  3. Change how things fit together - Parts and Whole
  4. Segment based upon specific conditions

These principles were used in the design of the advanced Boeing 737 engine cowlings, which are now oval (rather than round) to resolve the engineering design contradiction of area vs. diameter. Take a look the next time you fly!

Using a principle, like one of these, to stimulate a line of thinking is very familiar to scientists, engineers, designers, and architects. Even trial lawyers use these approaches.

TRIZ Principle #5 - Lines of Evolution

TRIZ identifies repetitive patterns that occur as a technology evolves over time. Systems do not evolve randomly. Patterns exist and their evolution is predictable in a useful way. Over time, the evolution of technological and business systems has followed predictable patterns as traced by the patent literature and history of product development.

One line of evolution is the transition from mechanical to chemical to electronic to electromagnetic energy systems.

Consider the example of a simple toothbrush or more accurately, a teeth-cleaning system. The idealized result would be - Healthy teeth for life with no additional resources. If we look at the evolution of teeth-cleaning, along the lines of technology, we see the following:

1st: Sharpened sticks to remove particles . this evolved into
2nd: Simple hard bristles on the end of a holder to enable the back teeth to be reached..then
3rd: Variation was added. Various sizes made it easier for different types of people (children, different mouth sizes) to reach the inner section of their mouths. Various bristles were developed for different gum conditions.
4th: In parallel to the toothbrush, new chemical additives were introduced into toothpaste. More rapid advances were made in this area of technology. Finally..
5th: Vibrating bristles (sonic technology) were introduced to increase the energy level at the tooth/gum interface.

TRIZ predicts that as a mechanical approach becomes more idealized, other fundamental technologies emerge. Chemical technologies for whitening emerged from nowhere to become well established. Chemical technologies are emerging to remove plaque and provide coatings to eliminate cavities. Ultra-sonic devices (a brushless energy device) are removing particles. This movement from mechanical to chemical to ultra-sonic is taking place in many industries.

In TRIZ, we represent this as a family of S-curves. Your company, your industry and your technology have their relative position. Ignoring these known lines of evolution can delay breakthrough product ideas at the expense of optimizing a product that will be soon replaced.

There is usually more than one line of evolution affecting a system. The challenge is to recognize those that have a determining impact on your product or business. For every business enterprise, there are a few key 'Lines of Evolution' that strategically shape future growth trajectories. These include:

  • Core Technology
  • Reduction in number of process steps - for the consumer, for the supply-chain, for manufacturing process. e.g. Swifter floor cleaning system, eBay.
  • Simplification - what today requires a specialist will evolve towards direct consumer usage, i.e. trends in personal health care, financial planning, home improvement.

Often, we only consider Lines of Evolution that we think directly apply to our product or business. This can be very short sighted, since products, systems, and competitors can have a very different perspective of where they are on "their" S curve. It is paramount that we understand the entire box around our product and business.

Strategy can now graphically picture the positioning of your company, your competitors and other markets along critical Lines of Evolution.

Clayton Christensen's pioneering books, on dilemmas facing existing business, are full of examples that demonstrate TRIZ principles and patterns of evolution.

TRIZ Tools

The TRIZ-community has developed a variety of computer-aided tools -

  • Tools for searching patent and other databases for technical solutions in other fields
  • Tools for precisely identifying contradictions
  • Tools for mapping your company, industry and technology along Lines of Evolution

This executive summary is simply the beginning of a very powerful set of inventive problem solving concepts and tools that have come to us from a thorough study of global patents.

Invention does not have to be an accident, and is not necessarily restricted to a few individuals with special talent imbedded in their DNA. Invention and innovation are thought processes that can be studied, modeled, and reproduced - usable by all.

Jack Hipple, Principal with Innovation-TRIZ specializes in the unique TRIZ problem analysis and problem solving process. Jack consults with corporations and leads workshops with several engineering societies and innovation associations. He has authored a major study on structuring for corporate innovation. Jack can be reached in Tampa, FL at 813-994-9999, via Email at jwhinnovator@earthlink.net, or through the website www.innovation-riz.com.

©2004 Innovate LLC (all rights reserved)

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