In the 1990′s an innovation toolkit entered the West from the former Soviet Union. Invented and originally structured by a patent examiner for the Russian Navy, Genrich Altshuller, TRIZ (Russian acronym, for “Theory of Solving Problem Solving”) competes with tools such as brainstorming, Six Hats and Lateral Thinking, and many other psychologically based inventive techniques.
Why is this? First of all, group problem solving and psychologically based techniques are inherently limited by the experiences and knowledge of the problem solvers. No amount of stimulation of any sort can create knowledge that is not there in the first place.
The genius of Altshuller and his successors was to recognize that the place to look for the basics of invention and new ideas was not in the brains of inventors, but where the inventions were collected and recognized — the patent office. As a patent examiner, he saw thousands of disclosures and granted patents come through his office from a broad range of technical fields and his genius was to recognize that, when the inventions were generalized, there were only a limited number of inventive principles being used. This was not recognized by the individual inventors or their industries due to the use of particular jargon and terminology of that particular area of science or technology.
Altshuller categorized these inventive principles in several retrievable forms, including a contradiction table, 40 Inventive Principles, and 76 Standard Solutions. The advent of modern computers has allowed these tools to be stored and used in use friendly formats. What he invented was a “left brained” creativity and innovation tool that used inventive principles from all fields of science and technology — as if one had invited all of the world’s inventors into the brainstorming session with a group.
In reviewing the thousands of patents, Altshuller distinguished between incremental/“routine” inventions vs. truly breakthrough inventions. These were the inventions he reviewed to determine his 40 Inventive Principles. It turned out that these breakthrough inventions invariably resolved a significant operational or design contradiction. What we normally do with contradictions is to compromise. Design or operational characteristics that allow a contradiction to be resolved is truly a breakthrough. Graphically, this looks like the diagram above.
These 40 Inventive Principles are available in a number of public sources and publications and are constantly updated, reviewed, and extended to application to many fields (management, food, social) beyond the original applications in engineering and technology, clearly demonstrating their robustness.
In addition to the general problem of design or operational contradictions, there can also be contradictions within a parameter itself. For example, do we want a physical parameter such as hardness or softness to be present everywhere or just in certain locations, at certain times, or under certain conditions? Many breakthrough inventions are accomplished with the application of the TRIZ Separation Principles.
The next time that you are faced with a parameter contradiction in design or operation, consider separating the parameter in space, time, or between the whole of an object/system and its parts. Examples of these use of these products in everyday products would include bandages (adhesives in only certain parts), bicycle chains (rigid at the micro level, flexible at the macro level), or time release medications.
While looking at the global patent literature, Altshuller also recognized patterns and trends of inventions over time that also allowed inventors and problem solvers to use these principles in a generic form. There are many of these, but in this introduction we will just consider a few.
First, all systems, products, and for that matter organizations, evolve toward a more ideal state over time. Second, this occurs through the recognition and use of system resources. When we study the patterns of invention, we see many repeated examples of systems and products growing more complex over time to meet the needs of users. Then, out of nowhere, a simplified elegant solution appears and everyone says, “why didn’t we think of that sooner?”
By forcing us to look at the most ideal state of a system or product, TRIZ forces us to imagine this “ideal” state early on (this is one of the hardest challenges in TRIZ problem solving sessions as we immediately start thinking about all the reasons this is not achievable), and then to ask two questions:
This methodical thinking process that is the key characteristic of TRIZ and TRIZ problem solving sessions can be a barrier to its use and application. We frequently want to immediately jump into the solution space without spending sufficient time in problem definition. We frequently need to ask “why?” several times to get down to the key contradiction that needs to be addressed and is standing in the way of achieving the ideal result we are looking for. A methodical look at a system and its surroundings for resources that can be used for problem solving also requires patience and thoroughness. When TRIZ is imbedded in your blood stream, you will find yourself running toward contradictions rather than compromising or avoiding them altogether.
TRIZ is a science and not psychology and its successful use requires practice and discipline, but spending the time will pay rich dividends in novel breakthrough solutions as well as a reinvigorated problem solving effort when you and your people see that inventiveness is not random and not dependent upon one’s inherited DNA. Inventiveness can be learned and taught, and used to create breakthrough solutions to your toughest problems.
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.