The Separation Principles from the TRIZ methodology can be used to deal with both technical and non-technical problems. Traditionally, the separation principles (separation in time, space, upon condition, and between parts and the whole) have been used to resolve difficult technical problems with what appeared to be unresolvable contradictions. In a recent meeting of industry technical leaders, these principles were used to attempt to generate new ideas to resolve some of the key paradoxes of industrial innovation.
One of most significant of all the many problem-solving principles and tools within the broad category of TRIZ is that of the Separation Principles. These principles, separation in space, time, upon condition, and between parts and the whole, are used extensively in analyzing and solving technical problems that involve major contradictions in technical and physical performance issues. These principles, and the associated software algorithms available in TRIZ software packages, are used daily to solve some of the most difficult technical problems.
Contradictions, however, occur in all facets of a business operation, not just in its engineering and manufacturing functions. There is no reason to think that these same Separation Principles cannot be applied to “soft” or organizational type problems as well.
In a recent group exercise with a group of corporate managers, the Separation Principles were applied to a significant “soft” or organizational problem facing many industrial organizations. This is the problem of organizational response to the many contradictions they see in trying to get an organization to be both responsive to short term business needs and current customers, while at the same time being long term stewards of the growth and profitability of the organization. In other words, how does an organization resolve the paradox of both short term and long term needs, specifically within its technology organization? How does it deal with the contradiction of innovation and current business stewardship?
In the preparatory discussions and meeting of this group, a number of major paradoxes/contradictions that are faced in the area of corporate innovation were discussed and summarized. In a special TRIZ session following the generation of these issues, a brief explanation of the Separation Principles was given and then the group was asked to apply each of the Separation Principles, in turn, to each of the contradictions and paradoxes. This exercise generated a significant number of new ideas for the group as well as reinforced other ideas that the group had already considered and were evaluating.
Each of these contradictions was discussed in turn with the group, with the application of each of the “standard” TRIZ separation principles being applied and the group creating new ideas as a result of the discussions.
What follows is a review and discussion of the process and ideas generated.
The five major innovation paradoxes, discussed by the group in their previous meeting, were as follows:
Somebody’s job vs. everyone’s job.
Inside business vs. outside business
Chaos vs. discipline
Passion vs. objectivity
Risk vs. job security
Let us look at each of these in turn through the eyes of the TRIZ separation principles.
In many corporations, a small focused group of people, some of whom are perceived to have “different” thinking habits, are assigned the task of “innovating” while the bulk of the organization is left to take care of the current business needs. Sometimes this distinction in assignment is based on perceived creative ability and at other time based on technical background and experience. This arbitrary segregation obviously shuts out the vast majority of the organization’s intellectual assets from significantly contributing to new and novel business and technical ideas. In can also send a subtle message throughout the organization that only creative ideas from a few people are wanted.
In reviewing the four separation principles for application to this paradox, the group discussed the following:
Rotate responsibility for major innovation thought by time allocation. An example of this is the now famous 15% allocation of time for independent innovation projects by 3M researchers. All levels of management would protect this “special” time.
A room or special building is set aside for innovation activities. Whenever a person or group is in this area, innovative thought and activity is not only encouraged, but also required. Hallmark, Armstrong, Lucent, and other organizations have practiced this type of special room and facility separation. These special facilities frequently have special resource materials, are the sight of special training related to creativity and innovation, and are specifically designed to facilitate the creative process.
Simulated emergencies or crises are created by managers or scientists, requiring the person or group to stop whatever routine task they are doing and to invent a solution to a new problem, contact a new customer, etc. This could be the disclosure of a new patent, a new manufacturing facility, a merger or acquisition, or some other business event that would require a special innovative response from the organization. In many organizations, these conditions come up naturally in the course of business, but in many others, isolation from competition can create an artificial complacency and emergencies may have to be artificially created.
In most large corporate projects there are always portions that can be segregated out for special attention as far as innovation is concerned. These can be portions projects that have unresolved technical contradictions or unresolved business contradictions. This same type of separation can be done within the project groups themselves, by assigning certain groups of people to focus on particularly tough contradictory areas. The rotation of people in and out of these type of special groups is another version of the same application of this separation principle.
This same concept can be applied within the context of what is normally considered to be a routine project. A special effort can be made to arbitrarily pick out a portion of such a project and try to innovate in an area that was not thought of as having that potential.
Last but not least, it is always possible to take any project and separate the work process from the technical aspects of the project itself. Applying innovation and creative thought to the work process can often yield as large a result as the technical aspect of the project.
Frequently, major corporations are totally driven by the existence of long standing businesses that generate cash flow, but not earnings growth. It can be difficult to make a transition from a low growth cash flow business to a high growth, high margin, but short term negative cash flow business. This can be especially difficult if different technical and business skills are required for the new business area.
Applying each of the separation principles to this particular problem can yield the following possibilities:
Analyze in detail the product life cycle and initiate a defined, separate, targeted innovation program designed to replace the current product at a specified time. Another alternative is an acquisition strategy driven by the projected time separations.
Set up a totally separate physical organization to attack the current market and customers from a totally different approach.
Use the top and bottoms of economic cycles to deliberately stimulate new technical and business strategies. Another “condition” stimulus could be any number of artificially created “crises”, including stock price, action of a competitor, or significant change in a raw material cost or availability.
The use of internal venturing groups is commonly used in major corporations to provide the stimulus to create a totally new business perspective.
When an organization is well organized for current business conditions, it sometimes takes some effort to artificially create chaos to cause the group in turn to think outside the box of current operations. The separation principles can be applied to address these issues as well. There are times when a disciplined approach is required and others when a rapid-fire, more chaotic approach is needed.
Separate innovation and disciplinary thinking in the course of new idea development. Recognize the need to separate new idea generation from assessment when new ideas are generated.
Use an outside meeting space, meeting with a totally new business contact, or separate meeting location to allow the less disciplined approach to be discussed.
At the appearance of a new client, new article, etc., the group is allowed to brainstorm in an unstructured way. Each person can take it upon him/herself to initiate an ideation session after an encounter with a new client, an unexpected outside phone call, a new magazine or trade journal article, or some other appropriate triggering event.
A small group of people is separated from the group and assigned the job of analyzing new areas in an unstructured way. Participation in this small group activity can also be varied with time to ensure that broad organizational participation in innovation activities is obtained.
In the early days of a new idea, those proposing the new idea can generate passionate thoughts and ideas. Sooner or later this enthusiasm must be combined with the realities of business assessments, profit forecasting, realistic cost projections, time to market, etc. Application of separation principles to this contradiction can be as follows:
Identify passion cycle and negotiate specific time to be objective. Bring in new thinking blood on a programmed basis. Separate decision-making meetings between passion and objectivity. Tools such as DeBono’s Six Hats methods can be useful in this regard.
Separate idea generation meetings by location, and by personnel involved
Separate behavior as a function of the idea generation from idea evaluation
Separate reviews with objectives. Separate reviews and analysis from idea generation and brainstorming
With the emphasis on short term profit growth and the pressure to never have a failing product or business, people’s desire to risk their jobs to pursue new and risky ideas is far less than in the past. Employees who have spent several years on a new venture team have found themselves unemployed when the new venture technology was not viable or when the underlying business assumptions go awry. When an organization has gone through a number of these kinds of risky new ventures and personnel reductions have occurred, the remainder of the organization becomes very “maize bright” and will cease to wish to become involved in these sorts of high risk activities.
Application of separation principles to these issues can be as follows:
Identify seasoned, secure idea drivers whose confidence in their careers minimizes risk concerns. Require all personnel to spend time in an innovative centered position so that the risk is shared by all.
All personnel are required to spend time at an innovation center, where there are no penalties for “risky” ideas. This makes everyone more comfortable with the risk aspects of new ventures. All personnel could be required to spend some project time away from the safe political haven of “headquarters” to breed independent capability in a broad cross section of the organization.
Special rewards are given to all product and process development teams who generate significant new ideas outside their existing businesses. These could include long term stock options that could not be cancelled upon employment termination, minimizing the possibility of indiscriminate downsizing.
A complete 360-degree feedback loop is implemented to insure that both individuals and managers are involved in the process of decision and selection of projects and personnel.
The application of TRIZ Separation Principles to these issues presents some interesting new ideas typically not practiced by most corporations. They would be extremely easy to try in most organizations with little risk, and potentially provide a catalyst for innovation and growth.
The Separation Principles within the TRIZ methodology have proven themselves useful in solving thousands of highly challenging technical problems over many decades. These same principles can also be applied to the solution of many non-technical problems as well. We have only begun to scratch the surface of the broader applications of these principles and we hope that this short presentation will encourage others to evaluate the use of these principles in other business and organizational contexts.
Other possible application areas of separation principles to “soft” organizational problems include:
Employee appraisal and feedback
The assistance of the Idea Connections staff in Rochester, NY in facilitating this exercise is also acknowledged and appreciated.