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Akhilesh Gulati

Six Sigma

The Underlying Philosophy of TRIZ

Been there, done that

Published: Thursday, September 11, 2014 - 10:36

An important concept within TRIZ is that someone, somewhere, has already solved your current problem. In other words, they have “been there, done that.” Or course, the problem has to be clearly stated, in a generic sense, to enable the recognition of existing valid solutions.

TRIZ is not alone in recognizing this need. “Stating the problem clearly” 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 toward a preconceived solution. The “define” stage of the DMAIC problem-solving approach recognizes that, to get to a valid solution, the problem must be stated clearly, simply, and concisely. Incorrect problem definition leads to useless or ineffective “solutions,” which can lead to a considerable amount of time wasted 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 multiyear analysis of the worldwide patent database.
• The ideal final result tool orients the search to solutions that truly improve the system
• Applying some of the selected 40 Principles to root out problems often results in innovative methods of resolving previously identified challenges.
• Searching for alternate ways of achieving a desired effect frequently creates a breakthrough solution; a combination of the functional analysis tool along with the 76 standard solutions tool 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 one can lead to solutions that might otherwise have been missed.

Often human intuition or accumulated data tell us that something needs to change, such as cycle time, customer responsiveness, ot 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 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 of 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 recognizes the need for problem definition, it provides no direction about 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 perceived problem. Next, you must define the real problem. Finally, you must verify the problem.

Distinguishing between the perceived problem and properly identifying and attacking the real problem is key. For example, “How can a truck deliver cargo more 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, or the area in which 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 times of acceleration vs. times of high sustained 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 the problem occurs
    • Magnify this area (get details; remember, this is an iterative process)
    • Reformulate the contradictions

    Once the problem statement has been reformulated as a general problem statement, search for the various ways in which this issue has been addressed in the past. Remember, someone somewhere has “been there, done that.”

    Now that we understand 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:

    Specific problem

    General problem statement

    Dry the slurry to make it lighter for transport

    Remove moisture from the slurry
    => Separate the liquid from the solids in the slurry

    Inspect quality and uniformity (of density/dimensions) in ball bearings

    Inspect ball bearings for relative hardness and uniform shape/dimensions
    => Segregate ball bearings into good and bad
    => Separate soft round things from hard round things

    Need better head rests for car seat

    Need to minimize damage from effect of
    human head against a head rest
    => Cushion and stop, without harm, a moving object that suddenly stops

    Hoist seats up into the body of a 757 jet without use of overhead crane

    Move seats up 13 feet without the need for a lifting devise
    => Move bulky objects vertically

    Design the wing shape of an aircraft in different ways for different activities (e.g., takeoff, maneuverability, speed)

    Design a wing shape that is rigid as well as flexible at different times
    => Design flexible shape made of rigid components

    Grip workpieces of complex shapes without use of special tools for each shape (because vice jaws must have corresponding shapes and it is expensive to produce a unique tool for every workpiece)

    Improve stability (with a better grip) of an object, while accommodating different or complex shapes
    => Design rigid but flexible mechanism to hold complex shaped work-piece in place

    Develop better eyedrops to deposit medicine in the eye and not drain out (using a gel will keep the medication from draining out, but is difficult to pour)

    Develop fluid that is easy to pour yet viscous enough not to drain, and not use additional resources
    => Want fluid that is less viscous when poured but more viscous after pouring
    => Want fluid that has different viscosity at different times

    Make beverage cans with less material yet retain stackability

    Make thin-walled container that is strong enough to withstand stacking loads yet uses the least amount of material

    Prevent fuel filter leaks during max pressure flow

    Maintain seal despite pressure fluctuations
    => Prevent deformation of container/interface
    => Increase strength without increasing weight; maintain material stability and integrity
    => Increase strength without increasing complexity

    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 marketplace, a company can’t 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!”


    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 CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in Southern California. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, an MBA from UCLA, and is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.