How to use TRIZ to bring clarity to the ‘fuzzy front end’ of innovation

Instead of conducting wide-ranging brainstorming sessions so generate hundreds of ideas in search of the one "big one," author Jack Hipple recommends a TRIZ-based approach that focuses instead on clear problem definition and looking at past patterns of invention for potential solutions.

I have never seen so much activity and so many meetings on something we haven’t cared about in industry for 15 years, as we have downsized, rationalized, and combined. It turns out that you can only save your way into prosperity for so long, and sooner or later you have to come up with some new ideas (remember all the innovation programs in the 80s?).

The conferences and presentations I go to and listen to sound like scratchy 78 RPM’s mastered back on to CD ROM’s. Not much learning has occurred. And no recognition of new tools and science available.  We are still into asking our current customers, “what do you want?” We have coined a new word for this investigative new idea journey and it is the “fuzzy front end” or FFE. I remember from my industry days it was this “magic thing” that happened before the formal stage gate process, which was much easier to manage and control. 

So now we have the same problem with a different name. What do we do differently? TRIZ is a group of science based tools that take the guesswork and chance out of ideation and innovation. Instead of using a technique such as brainstorming to generate hundreds of ideas in the hope that we get one useful one, we more clearly define the problem, generalize it, and look for patterns of invention that have already been used to solve such a problem -— a far more efficient and methodical (but maybe less fun!) process.

FFE + TRIZ

So how do we use TRIZ in the FFE?  Two ways:

One: Plot and compare the current process, product, or service against the TRIZ Lines
 and Patterns of Evolution and use the lines and patterns to tell you what the next step is going to be and start working and thinking about it. Don’t wait until someone else does it. For example, those of you who are Tool Time folks know that automatic saws used to work in only one dimension -— straight ahead. Then someone figured out that the ability to adjust the angle to 45 degrees might be useful to handymen, and then finally adjustable to any angle desired and THEN into a third dimension. This process, if you look at the patents, took 5 years. These simple changes are a reflection of two TRIZ Lines of Evolution, rigid—flexible—wave, and one dimension—two dimension—three dimensions. These forecasting lines of evolution are 50 years old. If you were the new product director for power tools, and had these tools, how much more aggressive, pro-active, and insightful might have been your new product planning, market research, etc.? Try this same kind of thinking on the evolution of tooth brushes! Consider the flexible handles, the separation of bristles characteristics, and the evolution from manual to flexible to vibrational.  When thinking about the FFE, consider the use of the following principles:

1. Make a system more ideal by resolving contradictions and recognizing and using resources that are not being used (use of gravity in packaging dispensing)

2. Consider how to make a system more responsive, more variable, and more dynamic (think about automobile systems that respond to particular drivers, speed of car)

3. Consider how to minimize human involvement and automate a system (think about automated toll collection, bar codes and RFID tags, automatic inventory replacement)

4. Consider matching and mis-matching components (think about people in organizations, tire characteristics front and back, frequency cancellations in sound equipment)

5. Make a system or product more dynamic (think about exercise equipment, medical product delivery, car insurance)

Two: Figure out the next contradiction. Systems always evolve through the resolution of a contradiction (on their way along the lines mentioned above) in order to become more ideal. Resolution of contradictions is how systems, both technical and non-technical, advance. Look at every aspect of your current process, product, and how your product is used and identify every contradiction. Then force rank them in terms of their impact on your business. Then use the 40 Principles of TRIZ, the TRIZ Separation Principles, and the next TRIZ Line of Evolution to solve the problems and plan the next step in the product or process evolution. 

Consider the following examples:

1. Balancing number of bolts on a tire wheel cover vs. ease of removal and durability

2. Ease of opening of a pill bottle for the elderly vs. protection of opening by small children

3. Styles of problem solving vs. project needs at a particular time

4. Usability of complex office equipment by experienced personnel and novices

The TRIZ Separation Principles (separating characteristics in time, space, upon    condition, and between parts and the whole) can quickly generate novel FFE ideas if the contradiction involved is within a product idea itself. Examples of questions to ask:

1. Does the strength or flexibility of the material or product need to be the same everywhere? At all times?

2. Do the use characteristics of the product need to be the same at all times?

3. Can time release and variability be used to generate a new product concept?

4. Can the product or application be designed to be responsive to a desired condition?  An undesirable condition?

Conclusion

The history of inventions, breakthrough business ideas, and creative new products is characterized by the advancements along the TRIZ Lines of Evolution and the resolution of contradictions.  This recognition can be of great help in figuring out where the next breakthrough, now called the Fuzzy Front End, is going to occur.

Jack Hipple is Principal in Innovation-TRIZ, Inc., a consulting company specializing in unique approaches to TRIZ training, the application of TRIZ to non-technical and organizational problems, and the integration of TRIZ with other innovation and creativity tools.

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