TRIZ is a long-established problem-solving, analysis and forecasting tool, and makes a great innovation resource for engineers. Lilly Haines-Gadd, author of ‘TRIZ for Dummies’, explains the basics.
Imagine a world where every technical problem, every bump in the road and every annoying setback is new. This is how many product designers see it. But, according to Lilly Haines-Gadd, there is no need to experience the world in this way. In her debut book, ‘TRIZ for Dummies’, she explains the basics and background to an established order of innovative thinking that provides a mindset and toolbox for addressing difficult engineering problems. As the jacket blurb says, with TRIZ you can “discover all the ways to solve a problem, uncover new concepts and explore routes to product development that you might never have seen.”
‘TRIZ for Dummies’ is a primer in what Haines-Gadd describes as a “huge subject.” The word itself is an acronym for the Russian expression that can be translated as “theory of the resolution of invention-related tasks.” In other words, it is a knowledge-based structure and series of tools ‘to help you to think better.
One of the reasons why TRIZ is so useful for product design and innovation problems, she explains, is that “it comes from the world of engineering and technology.” She goes on to say that the method, which is 70 years old “is probably the biggest study of human creativity ever. The TRIZ community analysed tens of thousands of patents to try to understand the fundamentals of the most innovative technical solutions available, and then distilled their findings into simple thinking tools that we can then reapply to our engineering challenges. The fact that TRIZ comes from the world of technology, makes it an easy fit for solving technical problems.”
The book ‘TRIZ for Dummies’ is one of an instantly recognisable wide-ranging franchise that sets out to explain a broad spectrum of what appear to be ‘difficult’ subjects to people who are new to them. Its purpose is to supplement the “many excellent books on TRIZ that are out there already, but which are complicated and very technical.” And yet, says Haines-Gadd, who is managing director of Oxford Creativity, a company specialising in TRIZ, “one of the great joys of teaching technology-literate people such as engineers is that they are not afraid of complicated things. And so once they are hooked, you can give them a great big tome on the subject and they will be comfortable with that. But there are also lots of people who have heard of TRIZ but might want something simpler and less intimidating to start with.”
One of the books to which she might be referring was written by her mother, Karen Gadd, whose ‘TRIZ for Engineers’ is a “huge tome like the Bible.” Until this point, according to Haines-Gadd, “there was nothing smaller, simpler and easy to read pitched at the complete beginner.” It’s debatable whether engineers will enjoy being called ‘dummies’ by the publisher, but the point is clear.
For Haines-Gadd, who with her mother delivers the IET’s ‘Introduction to TRIZ’ course, it’s a case of TRIZ running in the family. The reason is that a little over a decade ago, the daughter started work at her mother’s consultancy. “I joined with the intention of helping to run the business and had no plans to do any of the TRIZ stuff, because I don’t come from a technical background, having worked in strategy, marketing and management consultancy.” Before long, she realised she had found a “completely new way of thinking”, before branching out into psychology in order to “try to understand how TRIZ had changed my thinking and the thinking of the people around me.”
After being involved with the company for a year, she started teaching the method, and has ever-since been involved with problem solving: “Learning TRIZ actually helped me to learn about engineering, which seemed to make me the right person to write a simpler and less technically detailed introduction to the subject.”
The cynic might be prepared to say that engineers, with their bright and fearless approach to complexity, already know how to think and that any method for teaching them different intellectual pathways will appear to be something of a New Age fad. Haines-Gadd is familiar with these objections to TRIZ, which has made its way into organisations such as Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and even the IET. To naysayers, the first thing she would say is that “TRIZ isn’t faddish. It’s been around since the 1940s and so isn’t a new idea being flogged as the latest continuous improvement technique. This is something that is built on a huge amount of research. What it has done that is so clever is that it has uncovered the patterns of human thinking. A lot of people think that it has uncovered patterns in product invention. But I don’t think it has. I think tells us more about how engineers think than the technical things they invent.”
While conceding that “not everyone will agree with me on this,” Haines-Gadd remains convinced that the real benefit of TRIZ is that “it helps you to think quickly and efficiently.” When people are defensive about TRIZ, she just says: “give it a go. TRIZ works best with clever people.” Nothing like a bit of flattery to get the audience on your side, or maybe it’s a case of, as Louis Pasteur famously said, chance favouring ‘the prepared mind.’
The root of TRIZ is the concept of ‘ideality’, a general term – there’s a whole TRIZ vocabulary to be learned – to describe the relationship between benefits, costs and harms. In other words ‘understanding how good something is.’ As the book says: “ideality is important because it’s very simple and brutal.” It keeps you constantly aware of all of the downsides associated with the various ways of getting what you want. For Haines-Gadd ‘this is important because it forces you to look for problems which, in turn, means that you’ll be able to solve the problems and improve your system continually in an iterative way.’ What surprised the author as she was writing the book, was that “ideality entered just about every chapter I wrote.”
When I ask Haines-Gadd why I should employ TRIZ, her answer is simple: “Don’t you want to think like a genius?” Clearly we all would like to, if only because it would get seemingly insoluble design problems off our desks. If nothing else, TRIZ helps to tidy up the mind and clear a bit of room for seeing innovation problems as they really are. Whether it can help to solve them is up to you.
‘TRIZ for Dummies’ by Lilly Haines-Gadd is published by Wiley, £21.99. More information about IET TRIZ courses is at www.theiet.org/triz.