Learn how the theory of inventive problem solving could work for you.
|Genrikh Altshuller developed TRIZ in the Soviet Union beginning in 1946, but it remained largely unknown outside the USSR until about twenty years ago. Source: Altshuller Institute|
Ford had a problem. On a small number of vehicles, the powertrain hardware and software malfunctioned. This mysterious issue cropped up in limited situations, couldn’t be replicated in the testing site after a car was broken down and put back together, and warranty costs were rising.
Larry R. Smith, now retired from Ford and a consultant at The Quality Smith (Dearborn, MI), recalls the strategy that solved the problem. The team decided to consider how they could get the system to exhibit this problem and found seven different scenarios. But only one matched the conditions cited by customers. It turned out that road conditions affected the instrumentation on the vehicle. A specific set of conditions—involving the road, the vehicle and speed—affected the software and caused problems on the vehicle.
The team solved the problem with a method called TRIZ, a Russian acronym for the Theory of Inventive Problem-Solving. TRIZ (pronounced trees) came out of the former Soviet Union, and now is used around the world. Proponents say that it will change your way of thinking and make problems that much simpler to solve. David W. Conley, president of Innomation LLC (Albuquerque, NM), says, “Instead of looking for a needle in a haystack, they’re looking for a needle in a pincushion.”
“TRIZ is a methodology for systematic development of both breakthrough and incremental innovative solutions for products and technology,” says Victor Fey, a consultant with The TRIZ Group (West Bloomfield, MI) and co-founder of the Altshuller Institute. “The key here is systematic. It’s not another type of brainstorming, or psychological enhancement. It’s a scientific discipline that can be, and is, used for development of breakthrough solutions.”
The method promotes a more efficient way of solving problems using a scientific approach. And it cautions against compromises. Experts say that if you’re looking for innovative solutions, don’t settle.
Genrikh Altshuller developed the methodology in the Soviet Union beginning in 1946, but it remained largely unknown outside the USSR until about twenty years ago. Now it’s used worldwide, and particularly growing in Asia. It has been used in manufacturing and other industries, and experts say that it should be used in education, business, and at home (more than one source said they had taught it to their kids). It also can be combined with lean or Six Sigma. The principles encourage you to solve problems in more than one way, and the methodology teaches that anyone can be innovative.
“It’s still one of the best kept secrets in the world as far as I’m concerned,” says Richard Langevin, executive director of the Altshuller Institute (Worcester, MA).
Altshuller found that certain common themes stood out in developing inventive patents. The classical form of TRIZ includes a set of 40 principles developed from his study of more than 400,000 patents.
David Verduyn, a consultant with C2C Solutions Inc. (Troy, MI), explains that although the methodology does include some complex ideas that seem to require having a TRIZ guru with you at all times, a good starting point would be the concepts of the 40 Principles, ideality, and resources. Though some sniff at these tools representing the whole of TRIZ, they can be a helpful introduction to the concepts.
The 40 Principles are a list of ideas—such as segmentation, asymmetry and universality—that provide another perspective for looking at a problem. Ideality is the ratio of a system’s useful to harmful functions, and is used to describe the ideal solution. Resources means using things already available in the system to solve the problem.
Ellen Domb, the founding editor of The TRIZ Journal and a consultant with PQR Group (Upland, CA), says that the 40 Principles are the most common tool for beginners. “The reason it’s popular is because it’s easy,” Domb says. “And it’s effective.”
Fey says the 40 Principles could be compared to math education that is limited to the multiplication table. It’s easy to use and apply in real life, but learning algebra, trigonometry and calculus would provide a more powerful set of tools.
Though the 40 Principles may only be a fraction of the methodology, if that’s all someone learns, that’s still valuable, says Cathie M. Currie, a cognitive social psychologist based in New York and an adviser at the Altshuller Institute. She’s currently working on a book on development and education, and says that although the field of problem solving is full of big mythological ideas, people solve problems every day. She says that people who are working in manufacturing have two issues in problem solving and innovation. First, the process may need to be improved, but other times it may need to be completely changed.
“One of the differences between Deming and TRIZ, Deming would look at the roadblocks. TRIZ would start over. What would happen if we never had this production line? What could we assume are the initial steps? The end result might be completely different from the current process,” Currie says. “I think people need to know both Deming and TRIZ, and they are compatible.”
The Ideal Final Result
According to Domb, the ideal final result is the second most commonly used tool. She says it’s harder to learn, and to some, scarier. “It gets you to look at, what would your business be like if all the problems went away?” Domb says. “In many cases, people find out their job goes away.”
But it doesn’t have to be frightening. It could also be a way of looking at and reinventing your business. When searching for new ideas, changing your vocabulary may help, says Domb. This can be tough for specialists who have spent a career learning specific vocabulary. But using technical jargon can block ideas. Instead, express your problem as if you were talking to a bright high school science class.
Bill Hessler was able to come up with lots of new ideas while working in the gas turbine section at GE. At the time, there were 55 parts in a gas turbine nozzle. He considered a showerhead, with its fewer than 55 parts. Though obviously much more basic, the idea of a showerhead was to change the flow, just as they were aiming to do with gas turbines. But there were too many parts, requiring them to be welded together, then inspected and put through penetrant testing.
A new design allowed the company to make it out of fewer parts, which did not require a pressure test for each weld, only a test and inspection for the final product. This TRIZ-inspired change halved the cost. “It’s amazing more people don’t know about it,” Hessler says.
If given the choice between working with two engineers, Hessler, now a principal mechanical engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground (Belcamp, MD), says he would go with the one who had had TRIZ training, and then would want to train the other one.
Hessler says that although he didn’t realize it, he had TRIZ training back in third grade. His teachers challenged him to find unusual solutions: “How would you solve this problem standing on your head? In outer space? Underwater? With three times as much as gravity? If you couldn’t see what you were doing?”
Hessler said some TRIZ thinking may sound Dr. Seuss-like: “How would you solve it in a boat? With a goat? In a moat?” But the method has plenty of practical applications. Hessler aims to teach new engineers this way of thinking. He would ask them what they would do if a tool was 10 times more powerful, or if the battery had tripled power. And his methods have worked. Though he came into GE with no experience with gas turbines, he left with more than 32 patent disclosures through the company.
Identify the Problem, Find the Solution
Donald Coates, a retired professor from the College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability, and Technology at Kent State University (Kent, OH), says, “TRIZ fits in very well with existing knowledge. It’s not, as a lot of people think, a whole new science, it does dovetail into the existing way you solve problems.”
“TRIZ still depends upon identifying the problem. You have to do a good job of identifying the problem,” Coates continues. “When a problem is well defined, it’s half solved. But once you’ve identified the problem, do you have the methods to solve it? Compromises, to a large extent, are a poor solution. TRIZ can get you a better solution without as much compromise.”
Mike Shipulski, director of advanced development at Hypertherm Inc. (Hanover, NH), has solved problems this way. Once he was working on a cooling system that involved copper and water. The group tried to come up with a way to cool the test station without releasing copper into the water supply. He formulated the problem: they needed the water to cool. The water didn’t have to carry any copper. So they separated the cooling water from the copper. And as often happens with TRIZ, the problem seemed impossible beforehand and surprisingly simple after. In order to come up with this seemingly basic solution, they needed a deep understanding of the problem and where the conflict was. Usually it helps to distill the problem down to two things that are in conflict.
And as with the powertrain problem at Ford, considering modes of failure lead to a success. Isak Bukhman, a consultant with TRIZ Solutions LLC, says if there is a problem in the manufacturing process or product, companies typically analyze the process and the product. Then it is possible to use inverted logic to consider how to create a defect, which can help eliminate them. “If you ask my opinion, we should think more about quality,” Bukhman says.
But it’s important not to raise costs while working on quality. Alla Zusman, director of product development at Ideation International Inc. (Farmington Hills, MI), says it’s easy to cut costs if you don’t care about quality: cutting costs while improving quality isn’t so simple. “So basically we invent potential failures using the inventive ability of TRIZ,” Zusman says. This problem-solving approach has worked in the warranty department in the automotive industry. The idea complements Failure Modes and Effect Analysis. By anticipating failures, they can understand how to correct them.
Just One Tool
But, for all its merits, TRIZ isn’t one-size-fits-all. “It’s not for everybody,” says John Morris, who previously worked at Hewlett Packard, where he was responsible for getting others to use TRIZ. “Some people just are not creative enough to apply something to a different field of study to their own specialty. It just doesn’t translate.”
But Morris, who now teaches management at the College of Business at Oregon State University, says it gets results. “One of the things TRIZ really excels at is applying technologies in new applications,” Morris says. He suggests looking at a problem and then restating it in a simple sentence in which a subject performs an action on an object, basically using synonyms. “You start looking at areas where you wouldn’t have looked before,” Morris says. This approach allowed his staff to consider inkjet technology for medical applications where a liquid could be injected through the skin without a needle, as well as fuel consumption in combustion engines.
If you’re interested in learning more, working on a real problem with an expert in a training course is often the best way. As David Verduyn says, you can talk about swimming all day, but if you don’t get in the water, you won’t be a great swimmer.
Whether you use the 40 principles or the concept of ideality or anticipatory failure determination, the tools could work for you. “I encourage new students of TRIZ to just do it. People think they’re doing it wrong, and shy away from it,” says David W. Conley. “Be brave and move forward. You will quickly realize how it is a powerful tool to put into your arsenal.”
For more information, visit the Altshuller Institute at www.aitriz.org.