By Nikolay Shpakovsky
The modern state of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) arouses conflicting emotions in me. One the one hand, TRIZ provides opportunities to get significant innovation results and is making headway at larger world companies. On the other hand, there is a blurring of the notion of TRIZ itself. This word is often associated just with problem-solving methods and algorithms – so that almost all disputes in literature focus on these methods. As this takes place, disputants often do not understand each other, which is natural because each methodology has its own specific language.
The entire situation looks very much like the construction of the Tower of Babel. According to the Biblical legend, after the Flood, people spoke the same language. Overcome with pride, they decided to build a tower that would have its top in the heavens. The construction of the tower was interrupted by God who confused their languages so that they could not understand each other. As a result, the Tower of Babel was not built.
I believe that impossibility to communicate with the aid of words was only half-misfortune. The main problem was that the Tower constructors did not have any drawings or schemes. A drawing is a universal, simple language – understandable to everyone. It could be used to describe in detail all the peculiarities of the construction. Without drawings, the constructors quickly turned the Tower into a kind of shapeless pile.
TRIZ also lacks such a "drawing," which hampers its understanding. The modern interpretation of the structure of TRIZ is gradually turning into thick compote where theoretical postulates, individual tools, algorithms, notion definitions and the like float on equal terms.1,2 Such a situation only remains possible until discussions about TRIZ are held in the "empyrean" of TRIZ tools and methods. Nobody thinks much about where these methods come from or how they are produced; just as an old man who lives in a mountain village never thinks about what is at the bottom, under a cloud. But it is possible, however, that there is no terra firma below but rather an unsteady sea. A seemingly reliable mountain may turn out to be the tip of an iceberg.
These icebergs are treacherous! Such methodological constructions in a precarious balance, gradually washed out by warm currents from below, float in the ocean until striking something – a real problem, for example. Then it is easy to be "surprised," understanding that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to put life to the methodology without any serious theoretical basis underlying this methodology.
A seditious thought: what is special, magical about TRIZ? How does it differ from fine arts or architecture? A painter conceives an idea and then realizes it. The result of his work is turning a clean canvas into a paint-coated canvas. The same is true for an inventor, a TRIZ specialist. He conceives some idea and realizes it. The result of his work is a sheet of paper covered with characters – a report. What is the difference? This must be clear in order to determine what TRIZ is.
TRIZ has the potential to disappear as a phenomenon if it does not fit into the existing process of school or, primarily, higher education. Even this is not enough. TRIZ should fit not so much into the educational system as in the sciences. To achieve this, it is necessary to prove that TRIZ is an applied science with its own subject, methods and structure. This means that the romantic stage in TRIZ evolution should be replaced by the pragmatic. TRIZ should "grow up."
TRIZ has been analyzed according to ten criteria of "scienceness," starting from the scientific purpose and knowledge "systemness" to the reproducibility of results and openness to criticism. The work states that TRIZ partially or fully corresponds to all these criteria. I think, we can agree with it. The third criterion of scienceness – the knowledge systemness – makes it clear that "… today, TRIZ is a system of interrelated laws, tools, and methods of analysis, algorithm and information collection." That is, TRIZ is a system that can be described by showing its composition and structure.3
Then what is TRIZ? How is it organized? What are its frames? It is often difficult to understand its boundaries. TRIZ is, on the contrary, easy to determine, especially as regards its methodology. TRIZ has a definite purpose – the solving of inventive problems. The entire power of TRIZ is focused in the space between a problem and a solution to the problem, between a situation having some disadvantage and an improved situation – nothing more nor less, as shown in Figure 1.
The distinction of solving an inventive, not design, problem is important to note. Consider a diagram indicating the complexity of problems arising during the implementation of some innovation project, displayed in Figure 2. Most of these problems are solved by ordinary design methods, without using TRIZ. But there may arise some complex problems unsolvable by traditional methods. This is where TRIZ is employed.
This means that the "sphere of interests" of TRIZ is determined unambiguously: the entire process of solving an inventive problem exactly, from the conditions to obtaining a solution. Nobody needs a science that deals only with part of this process – it is impossible to cross an abyss in two jumps.
It is natural and logical to suggest that all that is necessary for problem solving, without any exceptions, should be concentrated in this particular area. Therefore, TRIZ should be considered as a set of all methods necessary for solving an inventive problem from the beginning to the end, and everything that is needed for the development of these methods.
How have inventive methods evolved and what qualitative changes occurred after the appearance of TRIZ? The "trial-and-error method" is a bad phrase to TRIZ specialists, but a benefit for civilization. There are other pre-TRIZ methods, such as synectics, empathy, brainstorming, morphological analysis, etc. They accumulated as the result of experience of every given master and mostly died with those masters. It is considered good form in the TRIZ world to say that these methods are based on psychology and enumeration of possibilities. I disagree: modern masters would be unashamed of learning how their ancient colleagues, who did not have even a simple computer, understood the world and the essence of all things.
In my opinion, the problem has laid not so much in the creation of new problem-solving methods. The knowledge of invention, its principles and methods is difficult to accumulate and pass on. Yes, we were taught, we were given some incomplete, fragmentary explanations, but how can this knowledge be passed on? An intelligent student was quick to learn, grasped the main idea and the rest was apprehended through work or experience. However, one way or another, the knowledge of inventive principles has gradually accumulated despite the obvious difficulty in deriving and preserving such knowledge. In this situation, any method helpful in preserving the crumbs of invention experience would be very apropos.
The history of technology proved to be not the best source of information about inventions. It describes the results of inventive activities with large brush strokes, often neglecting the ways of obtaining those results. The breakthrough became possible after the appearance of patent databases where inventions and technical solutions were described in full, according to a single pattern. It became possible to trace the finest steps, the movements of an inventive thought, and to understand what an inventor was doing while transferring from one system modification to another (which principle or set of principles he used and which contradictions were thereby resolved).
It is the Russian patent system that requires full descriptions of analogs, prototypes, objects of invention and methods of attaining the objects. In a patent application, special attention is paid to the structure and functioning of an invented device. In patent systems of other countries (for example, the United States), a patent description and claims sometimes give but a dim idea of the novelty aspect.
The same that usually happens during the evolution of any science – transition from quantity to quality, appearance of some structured theoretical core, a set of fundamental knowledge.
A painting lives for centuries and can tell an experienced eye much about how it was created, what idea was taken as a basis and what technique was used to create it. Painters have accumulated theoretical knowledge for thousands of years. Today there exist special schools where students "learning to be painters" are nothing extraordinary. Of course, first students train their eyes and are taught to hold their hands correctly, but theoretical courses make up a considerable part of the educational process.
Numerous things a painter has to learn before taking his place at an easel and painting something in his own manner, such as:
This knowledge, however, does not appear from nowhere – it is the quintessence of the experience gained by generations of masters, collected and organized into some system or theoretical basis. It is this combination – theoretical knowledge plus practical skills – that allows a painter to work out his own inimitable style and to create according to his talent.
The same applies to the inventor's craft. It remained a craft as long as the method was based on isolated principles and rules, and no correct and sufficiently complete theoretical nucleus (or basis) existed.
Each aspect of human activity during human history was theoretically justified in one way or another. The question was whether that justification was correct. Accumulation and generalization of practical experience made the theoretical nucleus more sound, freeing it from all the unnecessary and absurd. Immediately after the knowledge organized into a system had reached its critical mass, a craft turned into science. TRIZ is not an exception.
When explaining TRIZ, I say that solving a problem implies a set of repetitive actions, such as driving a car. It is simple enough, but there is one noteworthy detail – both a beginner and an experienced driver perform the same actions, but the results are sometimes surprisingly different! There is nothing to be done about this. One can only learn how to drive a car (solve problems) by repeating this process many times.
This is not enough, however. It is necessary to try to understand why actions are performed and what the best ways of performing them are. For example, it is necessary to understand the car structure, road peculiarities, wind effect and many other things that refer not so much to skills as to theoretical justification. It is a poor driver who can mechanically depress pedals without understanding her car and road conditions. An inventor/problem-solver will not be strong either if she does not understand the in-depth essence and theoretical background of the actions she performs.
Using this approach, students quickly come to understand that methodological support to problem solving is based on theoretical postulates which, in turn, rest on the three "elephants" – philosophy, psychology and natural sciences. Failing to understand this will allow a solver to acquire skills, but will never allow him to become a master.
A fuller diagram showing TRIZ composition and structure is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4 shows TRIZ as a multilevel structure composed of a theoretical nucleus and methodology. The theoretical nucleus is based on several phenomena – the existence of the material world is the fundamental phenomenon and human thinking and the evolution of technology results.
Human thinking is studied by psychology and technology evolution by philosophy. Natural, exact sciences illuminate the variety of objects and phenomena of the material world. What do we need from the entire sum of knowledge produced by the three groups of interrelated sciences in order to solve an inventive problem?
Developing these basic notions, we aim at obtaining some theoretical provisions that can be the starting point for some fundamental axioms – notion of resources, contradiction, ideality, system approach, model approach, thinking inertia, creative thinking properties.
These provisions (as well as formulated and proved axioms and theorems) can form a theoretical basis for the methodological part of TRIZ. So far, there are many elementary methods, parts of the problem-solving process: functional analysis, structural analysis, principles of resolving technical and physical contradictions, standard solutions, modeling with little creatures, STC (size-time-cost) operator, empathy, ideal final result, combined alternative systems, etc.
Elementary methods are built in the following manner: the theory has the notion of thinking inertia and it serves as a basis for the development of thinking control and thinking inertia fighting methods. Or there may be technical systems evolution laws that were used for the development of the methodological tool – evolution lines. There exist an unlimited number of such elementary methods. New methods are also being developed: for instance, the technological evolution tree or the harmful machine.11,12 Elementary methods are often unverbalized and only exist in the mind (and sometimes only in the subconscious) of the solver who developed and uses them.
In addition to TRIZ methods such as the contradiction-resolving inventive principles or modeling with little creatures, the list of elementary methods also includes (as full members): the trail-and-error method, brainstorming, analogy and morphological analysis. Sometimes these methods are incorporated as a whole, without changes, as Pythagorean geometry was incorporated as a particular case of Lobachevskian geometry. It often happens that all that remains of a method is its main idea, its positive construct.
"Do you solve using principles or ideality," one of my colleagues asked me once in a friendly manner. I do not make a mystery of my skills – problems should always be solved "by means of the head." But it was a good question. The answer is: one should rationally use certain combinations of different methods.
The most essential thing is understanding the generalized problem-solving process. How it appears to our minds is the subject of a long and interesting discussion. The popular (most likely simplified) opinion is that first the brain analyzes the problem conditions and then it synthesizes a solution. The generalized solving process (analysis – synthesis) is a convenient starting place.
In addition to understanding how the human consciousness works, it is necessary to make clear:
Next we may proceed to building typical problem-solving algorithms. These are our plans/groundwork necessary for a future fight with a problem. The situation is facilitated as there already exist some typical problem-solving algorithms, the most popular being ARIZ-85B developed Genrich Altshuller and his colleagues.13 ARIZ suits a problem aimed at the improvement of a technical system. There are also standard algorithms for prediction and circumventing a patent.
In addition to ARIZ, there are other standard algorithms – value-engineering analysis, EDT (effective decision technology), USIT and the like.14,15,17 The number of standard algorithms is growing and a solver has to decide what algorithm is appropriate. If an appropriate algorithm cannot be found, an existing algorithm should be modified or a new algorithm should be created.
The top portion of Figure 4 shows a process for solving a real problem. Having armed himself with a standard algorithm, a solver begins to perform this most important, key action of TRIZ, that has one peculiar feature – two people will never use the same method in a similar way. Even if they are sitting near each other and looking at the same ARIZ text, it does not mean that the same processes proceed in their minds. Their results will be different, without fully understanding the reasons why. The number of algorithms equals the number of people, problems and situations so that even if there is only one model algorithm, it may be used with an infinite number of variations.
After solving a problem, it is useful to analyze the solving process. Is the used algorithm convenient, sufficiently full and comprehensible to a user? Something may need to be clarified, corrected in a standard algorithm, some elementary methods may need to be added, etc. – the standard algorithm should be adapted to the solver's thinking style. A solver often discovers that it is necessary to create her own method, her own "creation technology," that will be convenient for her. The easiest way of doing this is taking an already available algorithm as a basis. A set of elementary methods obtained directly from the theoretical postulates of TRIZ can be considered a "toolbox" – a solver finds tools suitable for doing some work and are convenient to keep at hand (convenient for the solver's thinking style).
Supplementing the suggested TRIZ structure, therefore, the "elementary methods – problem-solving algorithms" pair with a well-developed "theoretical nucleus" to produce some "tool room," as one TRIZ expert notes. This tool room will be used for consciously producing a variety of elementary methods – "bricks" for assembling necessary solving algorithms depending on the problem type, available resources, contradiction depth, solver's thinking style and other factors.
What becomes clear after looking at the proposed TRIZ structure? It is a system, which means that the rules applicable to all other systems may be equally applied to TRIZ. Any system tends to dynamicity, because dynamicity is a strong precondition for controllability and better coordination. The same applies to the development of the inventive problem solving methodology. It may be predicted that the current ARIZ with its rigid structure will transform into something more dynamic, controllable, i.e., into an algorithm capable of quickly transforming and maximally adapting to the solving of a specific problem in given conditions by a given solver.
At the same time, it is necessary to have in view many problems lying in an absolutely different plane. For example, thinking that TRIZ is only a methodology allows and requires supplementing it with some theory, theoretical basis. Thinking that the TRIZ science covers both theory and methodology (which seems more correct) makes it necessary to specify the composition and structure of TRIZ itself, without whatsoever additional theories, collecting all that is necessary for solving an inventive problem into a single system.
The author expresses gratitude to TRIZ-profi employees and E.L. Novitskaya for assistance in the preparation of this article. Special thanks to V.Y. Bubentsov, a benevolent and exacting opponent; discussions with him contributed greatly to the writing of this article.
Nikolay Shpakovsky, Ph.D., TRIZ Master, is a consultant specializing in solving complicated technical problems and circumventing patents of competing companies. He has carried out a number of innovative projects for different companies, including Samsung corporation and POSCO. Dr. Shpakovsky organized the "TRIZ-Trainer" online training system for Samsung personnel. He is an inventor and author of "Using Evolution Trees for Technical and Patent Information Processing" published in Japan and in Russia. Contact Nikolay Shpakovsky at triztrainer (at) mail.ru.