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Akhilesh Gulati

Quality Insider

Structured Innovation: Ideal Final Result

Identify the right problem to solve

Published: Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 12:40

Editor’s note: This article continues the series exploring the TRIZ methodology, a problem-solving, analysis, and forecasting tool derived from studying patterns of invention found in global patent data. TRIZ identifies 40 principles, of which the ideal final result is one.

After seeing the successes achieved by Belinda and Josh from using the problem-solving methodology TRIZ, members of the executive council wanted to learn more about the 40 principles that made up the process and the structure it provides for innovative solutions. They wanted to know how this approach differed or aligned with lean. So, true to their commitment, they brought in Henrietta, a TRIZ consultant, for their next monthly meeting.

The council members listed the reasons they were interested in creativity and innovation:
• Reduce time to market
• Improve return on investment
• Improve quality
• Solve problems

Henrietta assured them that structured creative problem solving would help them achieve these objectives. “The approach is to start with a problem statement and identify the contradictions that prevent you from solving the problem,” she said. “Then use TRIZ tools to eliminate those contradictions. Tap into all the available resources, apparent ones as well as those that might be invisible to you, to help you reach your ideal final result.”

She started by showing them how to use the ideal final result (IFR). The IFR describes the solution to a problem, independent of the mechanism or constraints of the original problem, and liberates your thinking from your knowledge of preconceived solutions. The group learned that innovative breakthroughs always increased the “ideality” of a system, which is defined as the total perceived benefits without any cost or harmful effects.

Henrietta explained this concept using a typical, everyday problem. She asked the group to consider the power lawnmower as a tool, and the lawn as the object to be cut. The lawnmower is noisy, uses fuel, requires human time and energy, produces air pollution, throws out debris that can endanger children or pets (or the legs of the person pushing it), and is time-consuming to maintain. If our job is “improve the lawnmower,” we could immediately set up and prioritize solutions for a number of TRIZ problems to improve fuel usage, reduce noise, improve safety, etc. However, if we first define the IFR, we can get a much better perspective on the future of the lawnmower and the lawn care industry.

“What does the customer want?” she asked. The IFR is nice-looking grass. The machine itself is not part of the desired solution. It should come as no surprise to find that at least two companies that make lawnmowers are experimenting with “smart” grass seed, i.e., grass that is genetically engineered to grow to an attractive length, then stop growing.

“Now let’s isolate one problem and see if we can still benefit from the IFR,” she said.

One of the issues with the lawnmower is the noise it makes. To gain competitive advantage, if your assignment is to reduce the noise, what is the IFR? A quiet lawnmower? The standard approach would be to add baffling or dampers to muffle the noise, in other words add parts, thereby increasing the lawnmower’s complexity and reducing reliability. Not exactly an ideal solution.

One way to think about the ideal system is to say, “The system takes care of itself.” How would this viewpoint apply to a lawnmower?
• The grass mows itself. Figure out how to make grass that keeps itself short: develop smart seed
• The mower keeps itself quiet. Figure out how to remove the noise source or how to use something that is already in the system or environment that could act as a muffler. One company in Sweden has arranged the mower’s exhaust to blow down into the grass and dirt to muffle the sound.

The executive council thought this was an interesting way of considering problems. It helped them to look at a problem’s constraints. One could then consider which constraints are required by the laws of nature, and which are self-imposed. (“We’ve always done it this way.”) The council members observed that this not only offered a different way of thinking, but also offered choices, e.g., continue using metal cutting blades, accept the maintenance and safety issues, and replace the noisy gasoline engine with an electric motor to eliminate the most significant source of noise.

By formulating an IFR, they could:
• Encourage breakthrough thinking
• Reject compromises
• Have discussions that establish a project’s boundaries

Now that the members had learned a new TRIZ tool (IFR), it was time to share their stories and how they might apply what they learned. Mike described a situation that a colleague had at a paper mill. Paper mills typically hold logs in a block tank (a holding/feeding tank) that are then fed to grinding machines before being sent to the next processing step. The block tanks fill up with settled debris and need to be drained and cleaned out once a month, which requires stopping production for 24 hours.

A project team was put together to reduce this downtime. The team determined that the main function of the system was to feed logs into the grinder smoothly, and the debris prevented that from happening. The problem was the necessity of shutting down to empty the tank and clear the debris, running up against the desire to not shut down since that meant a loss of productivity. This was a physical contradiction.

Given that, the team defined its IFR as zero downtime, i.e., the system operates continuously. However, knowing that didn’t help them find a solution. They needed to work on the details of the problem. They quickly understood that the contradiction could be described in two ways:
• The physical contradiction was what they noticed first: They wanted to shut down. They didn’t want to shut down. Well, they really didn’t want to shut down, but they had to clean the tank. So they started thinking about how they could avoid cleaning the tank—get rid of it, get rid of the debris, make the debris “clean itself,” or....
• Technical contradiction (tradeoff): something gets better, something else gets worse.

As they talked about the problem, they compared the paper mill situation to the classical TRIZ contradiction definitions and decided the definition that applied for their situation was “improvement,” specifically, improving the duration of action of the stationary object (in their case, the grinder). The best fit for the worsening feature was “productivity” because they lost 24 hours each month due to tank cleaning. Having identified the two contradicting features, they then consulted the TRIZ Contradiction Matrix (see figure 1 for an example).

Figure 1: Example of the TRIZ Contradiction Matrix

The team identified the TRIZ principles that provided solutions in the past for their particular combination of problems:
Principle 20: Continuity of useful action, i.e., carry on work continuously
Principle 10: Preliminary action, i.e., perform an action before it is needed
Principle 16: Partial or excessive actions
Principle 38: Strong oxidants, i.e., a chemical solution instead of a mechanical solution

How could they apply these solutions to their situation? Although the block tank had been used for almost 100 years, was there really a need for a tank in order to feed the logs to the grinders? Ideally the logs should feed into the grinders directly. Considering the problem in this light led to breakthrough thinking. Project boundaries were redefined, and new approaches were considered:
• Using principle No. 10, perform an action before it is needed, they could possibly strip the debris-forming material off the logs, but that seemed cumbersome.
• On the other hand, principle No. 20, continuity of useful action, seemed to fit perfectly. So they tried feeding the logs from the opposite end, bypassing the use of the block tank completely, and it worked. The initial intent was to reduce the monthly downtime from 24 hours to somewhere between 16–20 hours. What they achieved instead, with minor modifications to the structure, was zero downtime. No tank and no associated need to clean it. This wouldn’t have happened had the team continued with its traditional problem-solving methods.

 

The council found all this to be exciting stuff. Henrietta left them with the thought that identifying the IFR allowed them to use the technical tools of TRIZ effectively in solving the right problem. Their assignment was to apply the IFR to a real problem in their business and see if they could actually implement it. If yes, great. If not, could they understand the contradiction that was preventing them from solving the problem? Henrietta was confident that some group members would come back with real success stories to share at the next meeting.

How would you apply IFR in your situations?

Discuss

About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the Principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and the CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in S. California. Akhilesh holds an MS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and MBA from UCLA, is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.