A Powerful Methodology for Creative Problem Solving
Projects don't always run smoothly. Even with all the analysis and data you need at your fingertips, sometimes you just can't see a way forward. At times like these, you need to develop creative solutions to the problems you face.
Chances are you already know about brainstorming, which can help with this sort of situation. But brainstorming depends on intuition and the existing knowledge of team members, and its results are often unpredictable and unrepeatable.
TRIZ, however, is a problem-solving philosophy based on logic, data and research, rather than on intuition.
It draws on the past knowledge and ingenuity of thousands of engineers to speed up creative problem solving for project teams. Its approach brings repeatability, predictability and reliability to the problem-solving process and delivers a set of dependable tools.
This article walks you through the essentials of TRIZ.
What is TRIZ?
TRIZ is the Russian acronym for the "Theory of Inventive Problem Solving," an international system of creativity developed in the U.S.S.R. between 1946 and 1985, by engineer and scientist Genrich S. Altshuller and his colleagues.
According to TRIZ, universal principles of creativity form the basis of innovation. TRIZ identifies and codifies these principles, and uses them to make the creative process more predictable.
In other words, whatever problem you're facing, somebody, somewhere, has already solved it (or one very like it). Creative problem solving involves finding that solution and adapting it to your problem.
TRIZ is most useful in roles such as product development, design engineering, and process management. For example, Six Sigma quality improvement processes often make use of TRIZ.
The Key TRIZ Tools
Let's look at two of the central concepts behind TRIZ: generalizing problems and solutions, and eliminating contradictions.
1. Generalizing Problems and Solutions
The primary findings of TRIZ research are as follows:
- Problems and solutions are repeated across industries and sciences. By representing a problem as a "contradiction" (we explore this later in this article), you can predict creative solutions to that problem.
- Patterns of technical evolution tend to repeat themselves across industries and sciences.
- Creative innovations often use scientific effects outside the field where they were developed.
Using TRIZ consists of learning these repeating patterns of problem and solution, understanding the contradictions present in a situation, and developing new methods of using scientific effects.
You then apply the general TRIZ patterns to the specific situation that confronts you, and discover a generalized version of the problem.
Figure 1, below, illustrates this process.
Figure 1 – The TRIZ Problem-Solving Method
Here, you take the specific problem that you face and generalize it to one of the TRIZ general problems. From the TRIZ general problems, you identify the general TRIZ solution you need, and then consider how you can apply it to your specific problem.
The TRIZ databases are actually a collection of "open source" resources compiled by users and aficionados of the system (such as the 40 Principles and 76 Standard Solutions, which we look at, below).
2. Eliminating Contradictions
Another fundamental TRIZ concept is that there are fundamental contradictions at the root of most problems. In many cases, a reliable way to solve a problem is to eliminate these contradictions.
TRIZ recognizes two categories of contradictions:
Technical contradictions. These are classical engineering "trade-offs," where you can't reach the desired state because something else in the system prevents it. In other words, when something gets better, something else automatically gets worse. For example:
- The product gets stronger (good), but the weight increases (bad).
- Service is customized to each customer (good), but the service delivery system gets complicated (bad).
- Training is comprehensive (good), but it keeps employees away from their assignments (bad).
The key technical contradictions are summarized in the TRIZ Contradiction Matrix. As with all TRIZ resources, it takes time and study to become familiar with the Contradiction Matrix.
Physical (or "inherent") contradictions. These are situations in which an object or system suffers contradictory, opposite requirements. Everyday examples include:
- Software should be complex (to have many features), but simple (to be easy to learn).
- Coffee should be hot (to be enjoyed), but cool (to avoid burning the drinker).
- An umbrella should be large (to keep the rain off), but small (to be maneuverable in a crowd).
You can solve physical contradictions with the TRIZ Separation Principles. These separate your requirements according to basic categories of Space, Time and Scale.
How to Use TRIZ Principles – an Example
Begin to explore TRIZ by applying it to a simple, practical problem.
For example, consider the specific problem of a furniture store in a small building. The store wants to attract customers, so it needs to have its goods on display. But it also needs to have enough storage space to keep a range of products ready for sale.
Using TRIZ, you can establish that the store has a physical contradiction. The furniture needs to be large (to be useful and attractive), but also small (to be stored in as little space as possible). Using TRIZ, the store owners generalize this contradiction into a general problem and apply one of the 40 Principles of Problem Solving – a key TRIZ technique – to it.
They find a viable general solution in Principle 1 – Segmentation. This advocates dividing an object or system into different parts, or making it easy to take apart. This could lead the owners to devise flat-pack versions of their furniture, so that display models can take up the room that they need while inventory occupies much less space per unit. This is the specific solution.
You, too, can use the 40 Principles of Problem Solving, or the 40 Inventive Principles, and the Contradiction Matrix to help you with your problem-solving.
Five Top TRIZ Concepts and Techniques
TRIZ comes with a range of ideas and techniques beyond the basic principles outlined above. Some are conceptual and analytical, such as:
- The Law of Ideality. This states that any system tends to become more reliable throughout its life, through regular improvement.
- Functional Modeling, Analysis and Trimming. TRIZ uses these methods to define problems.
- Locating the Zones of Conflict. (This is known to Six Sigma problem-solvers as "Root Cause Analysis.")
Some are more prescriptive. For example:
- The Laws of Technical Evolution and Technology Forecasting. These categorize technical evolution by demand, function and system.
- The 76 Standard Solutions. These are specific solutions devised to a range of common problems in design and innovation.
You can use one such tool or many to solve a problem, depending on its nature.
TRIZ is a system of creative problem solving, commonly used in engineering and process management. It follows four basic steps:
- Define your specific problem.
- Find the TRIZ generalized problem that matches it.
- Find the generalized solution that solves the generalized problem.
- Adapt the generalized solution to solve your specific problem.
Most problems stem from technical or physical contradictions. Apply one of hundreds of TRIZ principles and laws to eliminate these contradictions, and you can solve the problem.
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