An important concept within TRIZ is that someone, somewhere, has already solved your problem. Of course, the problem has to be clearly stated, and in a generic sense to enable the recognition of existing valid solutions.
TRIZ is not alone in recognizing this need. ‘Stating the problem clearly’ is something that was recognized by the formulators of the Six Sigma structure when they developed the DMAIC methodology. Apparently they recognized that people often start working on a solution before they have even defined the problem. This is perhaps because of a bias towards a preconceived solution. The ‘Define’ stage of the DMAIC problem solving approach recognizes that in order to get to a valid solution, the problem must be stated clearly, simply and concisely. Incorrect problem definition leads to useless/ineffective “solutions” and a considerable amount of time can be lost in solving the wrong problem.
Although conceptually simple, there are many facets to the TRIZ methodology:
- The most popular TRIZ beginner tool is the ‘40 Principles’ which is a catalog of useful creative solutions developed during a multi-year analysis of the worldwide patent database.
- The Ideal Final Result orients the search to solutions that truly improve the system
- Applying selected 40 Principles to root problems often results in innovative methods of resolving previously identified challenges.
- Searching for alternate ways of achieving a desired effect (i.e. function) frequently creates a breakthrough solution; a combination of Functional Analysis along with the 76 Standard Solutions creates a structured method for that search
- Real world examples help in demonstrating the essential nature of problem definition and the creative solutions that are possible if the problem is properly defined.
Here are some real-world examples to help illustrate how reformulating a specific problem statement into a more general problem statement can lead to solutions that might have otherwise been missed.
Often human intuition or accumulated data tell us that something needs to change, such as cycle time, customer responsiveness, or patient flow. “Something needs to change”, however, is not a problem statement; it is a perceived problem viewed from the standpoint of the person(s) making the statement. What prevents us from making that change can often be stated as a contradiction in need of a resolution.
Most of the time people focus on solving the perceived problem and do not get to the root cause. An incorrect problem statement might lead to an acceptable solution, but it is unlikely to be the most effective solution. This in itself becomes a waste of time and effort, not to mention a cause for frustration. However, when we have the right problem statement, achieved through observation, data, and analysis, the problem solving process becomes relatively easy. The quality of the solution depends on understanding the problem and therefore the quality of the problem statement.
Although Six Sigma methodology recognizes the need for problem definition, it provides no direction in how to define and write a problem statement. On the other hand, TRIZ concepts are helpful in creating the problem definition. These concepts include contradictions, ideal final result, systems thinking, and S-curve. Ultimately, problem definition is a three-stage process. First you must define the real problem. Finally, you must verify the problem.
Distinguishing between the “perceived” problems and properly identifying and attacking the “real” problem is key. For example, “How to have a truck deliver cargo quickly?” is not necessarily a complete problem statement for there are other challenges associated with it. The problem might be that increasing speed (which satisfies customers wishing faster delivery) leads to the need for increased power to overcome the increased air resistance (drag) on the truck body, which means increased fuel consumption. The problem then becomes “increased speed (a good thing) results in increased drag (a bad thing).”
Ideally stated we want to be able to increase speed and have no drag.
So instead of analyzing all causes or all areas (e.g. engine fuel efficiency) of the problem, the intent is to focus on the root cause that leads to the contradiction that causes the problem. Stated this way, we can start by looking at the operating zone, the area where the contradiction occurs. This will then open up solutions that might not have been explored earlier. In the truck example, the obvious solution is to place a deflector above the driver’s cab as this would streamline the headwind airflow from the front of the truck. However, because the operating zone and the associated conflicts have now been identified through the problem statement reformulation, other issues become apparent: What about the other surfaces of the truck that come in contact with the air and also create drag? How about the drag during time of acceleration vs time of high speed?
Identifying the operating zone then becomes one of the first steps of using TRIZ methodology. This can be accomplished through the following steps:
- Map the situation (create a visualization)
- Identify the area (e.g., operating zone) where the core of the problem occurs
- Magnify this area (get details; it is an iterative process)
- Reformulate the contradictions.
Once the problem statement has been reformulated as a general problem statement, search for the various ways this issue has been addressed. Remember, someone somewhere has ‘been there, done that.’
Now that the significance of formulating the problem statement from a specific issue to a generalized one, let’s examine a couple of examples to better show the difference. See table below.
Although presented in a rather simple fashion in the table above, transforming a specific problem to a general problem statement or an abstract problem statement is often a repetitive process. A traditional approach to accomplish this is through the 5-Whys tool, which can help identify the root cause.
In a nutshell, the TRIZ approach requires reformulating the problem, thereby interpreting this “new” problem in a manner that helps search for a solution. Restructuring the original problem involves analyzing the system, assessing the resources, defining the ideal final result, and formatting the physical contradictions, thereby getting to the root of the issue. This eventually leads to the search for a standard solution. Ultimately this standard solution is analyzed and a specific solution is developed and reviewed in ‘real time’ applications.
Although it might not be necessary to go through this more structured and directed method of concept generation, it can dramatically reduce the solution generation timeline, thereby allowing design and product solutions to be integrated at a much faster pace. Reformulating the problem statement makes it easier to find a general solution that can then be adapted to the specific problem.
This approach can reduce the time to market, which speeds up the profitability of a new product endeavor. In today’s technology-driven market a company cannot afford to be on the heels of its competition. Use every advantage to be one step ahead of the pack; don’t reinvent a solution or settle for an ineffective one. Remember, someone, somewhere, has “been there, done that!”