The solution to the problem of solving problems

Surely there must be an optimal way to solve problems? Whilst working as a patent expert in the Soviet Navy in the 1940s, Genrich S. Altshuller asked himself that very question. An inventor at the tender age of just 14 and trained as a mechanical engineer, he became curious about the process of invention. Altshuller’s belief was that psychological tools and techniques did not fully meet the problem solving needs of engineers and inventors. So he made it his job to develop a theory of invention.    In his quest, Altshuller reviewed over 200,000 patents over the course of the next few years. What interested him was the problem solving process that lead to the invention. If problem solving principles could be identified and codified, he thought, they could be taught to people to make the process of invention more predictable. He made it his mission to identify an innovation system that would be methodical and reliable which would not be reliant on psychological tools. He also wanted a methodology which would enable problem solvers to both access and to add to the body of inventive knowledge. Finally he wanted his theory to follow the general approach to problem solving which inventors were already familiar with. After years of thorough research Altshuller developed the system he had been searching for. TRIZ is the name he gave for his development. It is an acronym in Russian for the phrase ‘Theory of Inventive Problem Solving’. TIPS as it is sometimes known as, draws out the problems, contradictions and solutions in these patents into a theory of inventive problem solving. The research that Altshuller started has continued and now over 2 million patents have been looked at, categorized by level of inventiveness, and studied in the search for principles of innovation. What we know from this work is that the same problems and solutions have been  repeated across industries and sciences. Similarly, we also know that models of technical evolution have been repeated across industries and sciences. Significantly, the research also tells us that innovations have used scientific effects outside the field where they were developed. Altshuller discovered that over 90% of the problems engineers faced had been solved somewhere before, either in the same or another industry. The same problems had been solved many times over using one of only 40 fundamental inventive principles. Altshuller categorized the solutions into five levels:
  • Level 1 - just under a third of the solutions were routine design problems solved by methods well known within the specialty
  • Level 2 – 45% of the solutions were minor improvements to an existing system using methods known within the same industry
  • Level 3 – 18% of the solutions were a fundamental improvement to an existing system by methods known outside the particular industry
  • Level 4 – 4% were a new generation that uses a new principle to perform the primary functions of the system
  • Level 5 - 1% of the solutions were a rare scientific discovery or pioneering invention of essentially a new system
TRIZ is a 4-step process: Stage 1 is Identify the Problem
  • This involves identifying the system that needs solving, its operating environment, resource requirements, primary useful function, harmful effects, and ideal result.
Stage 2 is Formulate the Problem
  • This is about restating the problem in terms of what the TRIZ methodology refers to as the ‘physical contradictions’. Altshuller believed that problems stem from contradictions (or trade-offs) between two or more elements. That is, could improving one technical characteristic to solve a problem cause other technical characteristics to worsen, resulting in secondary problems arising? It entails asking if there are technical conflicts that might force a trade-off.
Stage 3 is Search for a Previously Well-Solved Problem
  • Altshuller identified 39 standard technical characteristics that cause conflict. These are called the 39 Engineering Parameters. So the idea is to find the contradicting engineering principles - the principle that needs to be changed and the principle that is an undesirable secondary effect.
Stage 4 is Look for Analogous Solutions and Adapt to my Solution
  • Next, use the 40 inventive principles that Altshuller identified as hints to find a solution to the problem.
One of the 40 inventive principles is segmentation which means to separate into smaller parts. Nesting means putting one thing inside another like a Russian doll, or fitting things together in some way. The principle of combination is to bring together things which happen at the same time or in the same place. The spheroidality principle involves considering all forms of curves instead of flat surfaces. Another one of the principles is inversion which means doing the opposite of what might seem normal. A problem where TRIZ has been used in the past relates is the presence of invisible fractures when using artificial diamonds for tool making. Conventional diamond cutting methods often resulted in new fractures which did not show up until the diamond was in use. What was needed was a way to split the diamond crystals along their natural fractures without causing added damage. A method from another industry – food canning - was identified as analogous and was successfully adapted. The process for splitting green peppers and removing the seeds involves placing the green peppers in a hermetic chamber to which air pressure is increased to 8 atmospheres. The peppers shrink and fracture at the stem. Then the pressure is rapidly dropped causing the peppers to burst at the weakest point and the seed pod to be ejected. A similar technique was successfully applied to diamond cutting so that the crystals split along their natural fracture lines with no additional damage. TRIZ has developed over the years to the point where large and small companies are using it to solve everyday problems and to develop strategies for the future of technology. TRIZ is used at companies such as Ford, Procter and Gamble and Motorola. Isn’t it time you solved your problem solving problems by using TRIZ?