The World According to TRIZ

Blue-chip American companies are embracing a 60-year-old innovation theory pioneered by a Russian inventor

With "innovation" such a hot buzzword in business circles these days, companies are scrambling to find the magic formula for creating inventive products and services. One method that's gaining converts -- and breeding skeptics -- is a 60-year-old theory known as TRIZ.

TRIZ is the brainchild of late Russian inventor Genrich Altshuller (1926-98), who worked as a patent inspector. In the process of observing invention after invention, Altshuller sought to identify a consistent formula for innovation. In 1946, he published an article laying out his theory of structured innovation, which he titled "Teoriya Resheniya Izobretatelskikh Zadatch." That translates roughly into "Theory of Inventive Problem Solving," or TRIZ, for short.

Fast-forward to 2006. The list of American companies that have applied Altshuller's recipe for innovation includes Boeing (BA), Hewlett Packard (HPQ), IBM (IBM), Motorola (MOT), Raytheon (RTN), and Xerox (XRX), among others.


 In the U.S., one of the main evangelists for TRIZ has been Brooklyn (N.Y.)-based futurist and innovation consultant Andrew Zolli of Z + Partners, who has advised such blue-chip companies as General Electric (GE). The TRIZ gospel is also being spread through a newly published book, Insourcing Innovation, by innovation coach David Silverstein, author Neil De Carlo, and TRIZ Journal editor and scientist Michael Slocum.

Here's a brief tutorial on TRIZ. Begin by defining your ideal outcome -- what function you want the product or process to perform. The next step is to figure out how to best utilize your organization's resources to work toward that goal. Next, run scenarios and devise models to try to achieve the desired outcome.

To help guide the process, Altshuller devised a matrix of 39 basic problems and 40 possible solutions. The former includes such tech-y considerations as "energy spent by non-moving object" or "tension, pressure." But others are more general, like "speed" or "level of automation." The list of possible fixes include categories such as "pneumatics and hydraulics," but also more common-sense principles such as "other way around" (as in, why not try the opposite of the approach that isn't working?).


 One company that successfully applied TRIZ to arrive at an innovative product is San Diego-based OnTech. In 2004, OnTech debuted a single-serving, self-heating container that can be used as packaging for soup, coffee, tea, or even baby formula. Among the brands that have licensed the technology are a line of gourmet coffees produced by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and Hillside soups and coffees.

OnTech's product developers faced more than 400 technical and engineering dilemmas in trying to devise a sturdy, yet portable container that could warm drinks and stews, but could also contain and withstand the chemical reaction used to generate heat. The team surveyed TRIZ's list of 39 problems and identified those that applied, and then selected fixes from the parallel list of 40 inventive principles.

For example, they chose No. 14 from the first list -- "temperature" -- and applied No. 30 from the second list, "use of composite materials," as well as No. 40, "flexible shells and thin films." By using TRIZ's mix-and-match lists as a springboard, the engineers quickly arrived at a suitable material for their container: a ceramic and carbon-fiber composite that's both durable and conducts heat efficiently. Presto, a new product was born.


  Although TRIZ has been around for half a century, it's only in the past decade that it began to infiltrate the research & development departments of American companies. Silverstein recalls that he first learned of TRIZ six years ago, during a consulting gig with Navistar International (NAV), a manufacturer of heavy-duty trucks. "One of their PhDs introduced me to a Russian group in Detroit, and they told me about TRIZ. And I thought, 'This could be a parallel to Six Sigma,'" he says, referring to the system for gauging defects and boosting quality pioneered by Motorola (MOT) in the mid-1980s and later popularized by companies like GE.

Silverstein acknowledges that TRIZ has found greater acceptance in Asia than in the U.S. His Asian client base has more than doubled in the past 18 to 24 months, he says. "It's hard for some companies to see innovation as something that can be structured," he says. "People want to think that innovations occur as the result of really smart people's ideas. When you structure that and say anyone can innovate, well, this idea becomes threatening."

Still, TRIZ is making inroads stateside. Davin Stowell, founder and chief executive of New York-based Smart Design, a leading product-design firm, only recently discovered TRIZ. Although he has yet to put the theory into practice, Stowell admits that he sees its merits. "When I first read about TRIZ, I found it a little offputting at first. I was a slight skeptic," he says. "Then I saw that it wasn't that different from what we do in product design."


  According to Stowell, the main difference between TRIZ and the methods used by design-cum-business-strategy firms such as Smart Design, Palo Alto (Calif.)-based IDEO, or Boston's Design Continuum, though, is that they also rely heavily on another trendy concept: ethnography (see BW, 6/5/06, "The Science of Desire"). In other words, they engage in intensive consumer research to figure out whether their inventions will be well-received or not.

When asked if "structured innovation" à la TRIZ is a contradiction in terms, Stowell defends the general idea. "You need structure to step out of the box. While TRIZ is clearly much more applicable for engineering and science, its core principles are helpful. Innovation absolutely needs to be structured to finish a project. Or else you wander all over the place," he says.

Some product-design firms approach TRIZ with caution. One of them is Design Continuum. "It seems to me that TRIZ is trying to create an equation for innovation," says Harry West, the company's vice-president of strategy & innovation. "I think it's a great aspiration. But if there's an equation for innovation out there, your competitor can do the same -- which means the competitive challenge can easily be lost."

TRIZ's proponents contend that they aren't trying to sell a modern-day version of snake oil. Says Silverstein: "Look, TRIZ is not the answer to everything. It's just one approach to innovation." And it's an approach more companies are turning to.

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