Now, don’t be fooled by this whole “professor” thing and what it might mean about the readability of his book. Sure, he teaches at a top tier university, and has a wildly intense professional record of publications to go along with his title. But he’s also the youngest tenured professor they have, and at 31, he’s also spent career time as a professional magician.
TRIZ, the “theory of inventive problem solving” conceived by the Russian innovator Genrich Altshuller in the mid-1940’s, is a collection of analytical tools intended to capture “innovation logic” so it can be systematically applied to solve engineering problems. Using TRIZ, individuals and teams have an actionable guide for thinking out-of-the-box and generating breakthrough insights to help solve problems. These problems can be related to new product design, enhancements to existing products, process design and improvement, or quality improvement. The acronym is derived from the Russian Теория решения изобретательских задач (Триз) or, alternatively, the Anglicized TeoriyaResheniya Izobreatatelskikh Zadatch (TRIZ). Reflecting its Russian origin, TRIZ is pronounced like “breeze”.
TRIZ was initially conceived as a set of 40 “design principles” that can be used to accelerate the innovation process. Later, this was expanded into the Matrix of Contradictions which can be used to identify which of the 40 design principles are applicable to a particular problem. The assumption underlying this matrix is that new inventions become possible when technical contradictions are resolved. Since Altshuller’s initial development of these tools, several teams of TRIZ practitioners and researchers have expanded the techniques that are now associated with TRIZ, although the 40 principles remain central to the technique.
Altshuller developed the core of TRIZ during his experience as a patent clerk for the Russian Navy, where he examined trends and patterns as he screened hundreds of patents that had realized innovative potential. He investigated the characteristics that made each patent successful, and eventually determined his fundamental axiom of TRIZ, that technical systems evolve according to objective laws. The most common modes of evolution were captured in the 40 principles. Believing that the newly developed technique could help rebuild the USSR in the aftermath of World War II, Altshuller proposed some initiatives to his government. However, rather than being rewarded for his work and allowed to help his country, he was punished for his heretical viewpoints and sentenced to 25 years in a labor camp in Vorkuta in 1949, a sentence he shared with many other academics and intellectuals who educated one another in their fields as a defense against the brutality. After his release from the camp in 1955, Altshuller began publishing not only about TRIZ, but also science fiction books, since it was so difficult for newly released prisoners to find employment. By 1985, Altshuller had conducted hundreds of seminars on TRIZ, had worked with students in elementary and secondary school on inventive problem solving, and had earned his reputation as a leader in innovative thought.
The core of TRIZ, its 40 design principles, must be used in the context of a problem-solving approach. This is called the TRIZ process, and consists of 1) stating the contradiction (what is not working), 2) expanding your understanding of the materials being used, equipment being used, environmental conditions, work methods, and people involved, 3) defining the ideal state of the evolved system, and 4) generating ideas using the 40 principles. This process is different than brainstorming because it does not rely on randomly identifying ideas, but takes a structured approach to exploring the system and the technological contradictions that might reveal potential avenues for innovation.
The 40 design principles of TRIZ are:
Segmentation. Break an object into different independent parts to uncover opportunities for creative assembly, disassembly, or component design.
Taking Out. Remove one part of a product or process to explore alternative ways to achieve the required function.
Local Quality. Explore the potential for one object or process to serve an additional or unexpected function, like a hammer with a nail remover attached.
Asymmetry. Change the shape of an object from symmetrical to asymmetrical, or make an object more asymmetrical, to reveal opportunities for alternative designs.
Merging. Identify how people, objects and subsystems can be combined to satisfy the requirements of the system in novel ways.
Universality. Determine how one object or component can perform multiple functions.
Russian Dolls. Also called nesting, this principle encourages placing objects within one another in various configurations to explore design alternatives.
Anti-weight. Explore ways to counterweight the system when it is impacted by negative external influences.
Preliminary Anti-action. By anticipating problems, steps can be taken to prevent their occurrence or to mitigate negative consequences when the problems arise.
Preliminary Action. By anticipating scheduled changes in the state of a system (e.g. knowing which machines will be used in an upcoming shift) action can be taken to ease the transition between states.
Beforehand Cushioning. Identify how to detect and respond to potential failures.
Equipotentiality. Explore how moving things side to side, instead of up and down, might impact the ability of the system to achieve its required functions without unnecessarily expending energy.
The Other Way Around. Determine whether turning components upside down, or inverting steps in a process, will resolve technical incongruities.
Spheroidality/Curvature. Identify how flat or planar parts could be changed to curved or spheroidal components, for example, ball bearings or spirals.
Dynamics. Explore how external forces acting on the system will impact its structure and integrity.
Partial or Excessive Action. Determine whether doing less of something, or doing more of something, can solve the problem.
Another Dimension. If a problem cannot be resolved in the number of dimensions allowed for the problem, increase the number of dimensions. Add corners, planes, or bends, or go around components within the system, or introduce the time dimension.
Mechanical Vibration. Inject energy into a system by shaking it or applyind sound and investigate how it responds.
Periodic Action. Determine how parts of the system where continuous force is applied would need to be changed if the force occurs in bursts.
Continuity of Useful Action. Identify how to reduce idle time or make alternative use of time.
Skipping. Explore how performing process steps more rapidly might impact introduction of errors.
Blessing in Disguise. Determine whether adverse impacts or waste can be reframed and treated as benefits, or even increased to strengthen the potential for indirect benefits.
Feedback. Monitor points within the system and evaluate whether utilizing that information can reveal new opportunities for improving the product or process.
Intermediary. Explore adding a new component to a system to temporarily or permanently reduce adverse impacts.
Self-service. Assess whether there are aspects of the system that can be self-regulating and self-repairing.
Copying. Evaluate whether one instance of a component in the system could be used rather than two or more of the same component.
Cheap Short-lived Objects. Identify whether short-term disposables play a role in the solution.
Mechanics Substitution. Replace mechanical systems with invisible or software systems to see how components of the product or process would be required to adjust.
Pneumatics and Hydraulics. Replace solids with liquids or gases to see how components of the product or process would be required to adjust.
Flexible Shells and Thin Films. Identify whether introducing thin sheets of materials into parts of the system would alleviate the problem.
Porous Materials. Determine whether pores should be introduced or closed within the materials comprising the system.
Color Changes. Adjust the color of the component or the system to signal different meanings to users or customers, or identify whether color changes indicate that new information must be acted upon.
Homogeneity. Explore how the system would change if you used one type of material for its construction.
Discarding and Recovering. Determine how rejecting or regenerating components might adjust the constructs within the system.
Parameter Changes. Also described as transforming physical and chemical states, this requires evaluating how resistant the system is to changes in physical composition and parameters in the external environment, such as temperature.
Phase Transitions. Explore how to stop, start, and otherwise influence transitions between different states within the system.
Thermal Expansion. Identify how heating or cooling a system will influence its structure, feedback between the components, or other factors.
Strong Oxidants. Determine whether adding or removing oxygen from the system will change its structure or constitution.
Inert Atmosphere. If environmental variables are negative impacts, explore the result of moving those from the system.
Composite Materials. Explore whether replacing traditional materials with composites will remove the technical contradictions.
Many tools for quality improvement fit nicely within the TRIZ structure. For example, CTQ Trees can be used to investigate #1, Segmentation, and Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA) can be used to explore #11, Beforehand Cushioning. As a result TRIZ can be used to catalyze innovation not only for design efforts (including new product design), but also to stimulate innovation through the quality improvement process.
Last week in a conversation with a friend I mentioned “you know how it’s easier to solve other peoples’ problems than to solve your own?” I was using this as a lead-in to a longer discussion, because he has some problems (in my opinion), and I’m really convinced I know how to solve them. I can see very clearly how he’s getting in his own way, self-sabotaging his own efforts, and refusing to face an aspect of himself that he should just confront directly.
“No,” he replied. OK, I thought – guess that ends that conversation. I didn’t pursue it any further.
Turns out you really CAN solve other peoples’ problems better than your own. According to a recently published research paper by Evan Polman and Kyle Emich, people were better able to engage in the abstract thinking required to solve complex problems if they believed they were making decisions on behalf of someone else. With greater psychological distance, a larger proportion of test subjects were able to develop workable solutions.
So when faced with a dilemma… ask someone else for advice. And make sure they’re not too close to you, meaning they can remain detached enough to present a solution based on resistance-free abstract thinking.
Here are some additional articles about the Polman & Emich (2011) study:
Innovation requires creativity, and has even been described as the act of channeling creativity to produce ideas or products “that people can and wish to use,” (Vandevert, 2003) because creativity is the cognitive process that enables innovation. This topic has been extensively studied in the art and psychology literature.
Bassett-Jones (1998), examining the interrelationship between diversity, creativity, innovation and competitive advantage, defines a creative product as one that a) has novelty, b) is appropriate in the situation it was created to address, c) is public in its effect, and d) derives a perceived benefit.
According to Sternberg (2006), who reviewed 25 years of psychology research on creativity, the creative process that yields innovations is characterized by three intellectual abilities:
“The synthetic ability to see problems in new ways and to escape the bounds of conventional thinking,
Analytic ability to recognize which of one’s ideas are worth pursuing and which are not, and
The practical-contextual ability to know how to persuade others of – or sell other people on – the value of one’s ideas.”
This suggests that for an idea to be innovative, it must meet three criteria: it must be novel, demonstrate utility, and demonstrate relevance. Relevance implies a specific context of use for the idea, a specific time horizon for realization, and also that the new idea must be operationalized and made useful. This final point distinguishes innovation from invention.
Bassett-Jones, N. (2005). The paradox of diversity management, creativity and innovation. Creativity and Innovation Management, 14(2), 160-175. Vandervert, L.R. (2003). Research on innovation at the beginning of the 21st century: what do we know about it? In L.V. Shavivina (Ed.), The International Handbook on Innovation. Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 1103-1112. Sternberg, R., Pretz, J.E., & Kaufman, J.C. (2003). Types of innovations. In L.V. Shavivina (Ed.), The International Handbook on Innovation. Oxford: Elsevier, pp. 158-169.