10 Types of Problem and How to Tackle Them Using TRIZ

By Lilly Haines-Gadd

For any kind of problem you encounter, follow the TRIZ problem-solving process and try for yourself different tools on various problems. That said, the approach requires a certain amount of experience and judgement regarding exactly how to use each tool for specific problems.

This is because some tools are a more natural fit for certain types of problem and when you’re an experienced TRIZ user you’ll feel confident in choosing the right tool for the job. Until then, you can go through a number of different problems and learn which tools are most useful for each and how they can be applied to give you the solutions you need.

Cutting costs

The TRIZzy approach to cutting costs is to find a way to reduce your inputs but without losing any benefits. Cost cutting means more than financial inputs and also considers materials, time, energy and so on.

TRIZ rarely deals with cost directly. Instead, you consider things in the physical world that result in financial cost (for example, design time, materials, energy required to make and then use something, processing time, time spent completing forms or in meetings), and then work out how to keep their benefits but reduce those physical inputs, thereby reducing costs. Before you can remove anything from your system, however, complete a Function Analysis of your system so when you remove or reduce something, you ensure that you find a way of keeping all the useful things that it gives you – by following the Trimming Rules.

Complete a TRIZ Function Analysis of your system to capture all the interactions between its components: revealing all the good things that are happening and all the problems– including costly features. After that, you can simplify and reduce your system by removing components, following the Trimming Rules. The approach you take when you’re cutting costs isn’t the same as traditional problem solving: rather than starting with troublesome components, you begin with the most expensive components.

For this reason, it can be helpful to ensure that you’ve captured the relative costs of each part of your system. You can do this when you list each component (precise figures aren’t necessary, just enough to identify the most costly parts of your system and thus where you should start trimming).

When you follow the Trimming Rules, you find ways to retain the useful actions of each component but get rid of the component itself (and thereby reduce costs). When you’re looking to cut costs rather than solve a problem, particularly if you’re hoping to change as little as possible, some of the later Trimming Rules, which utilise resources and look at trimming out only parts of components, can be the most useful. For this reason, list all available resources before completing the Function Analysis.

Function Analysis and Trimming are particularly useful for dramatic cost cutting. If you need to make a 50 per cent reduction or more, for example, first trim out as much as possible and then redraw your new system and trim again! This process will drive you towards very radical new ways of getting what you want – which may be considerably cheaper.

Another difference from regular problem solving is that when you’re looking to cut costs you may be willing to lose some benefits: as long as the costs reduced outweigh the benefits, your Ideality has still increased. Completing an Ideality Audit whereby you identify your current Ideality, the Ideality you’re looking for and, finally, the Ideality you’ve achieved, is also useful.

Make sure you:

  • Capture all relevant resources

  • Complete an Ideality Audit of where you are and where you want to be

  • Complete a Function Analysis, ensuring you capture the relative cost of each component

  • Trim, starting with the most expensive components

  • Redraw and trim again.

  • Complete an Ideality Audit of the new system

You’ve had a bright idea – but it’ll never work

When you hit a problem, it is rare that people can’t think of a solution. So why is problem solving hard? Because when you start thinking about practicalities you see all the things that are wrong with your bright idea. You can see that your idea makes something better – but then something else gets worse – such as you make your travel easier by going first class, but then it gets more expensive, or you want to do an additional test or measure to ensure high quality but then your whole process takes longer.

It is all too common when faced with these situations to give up or compromise – but actually what you have is a wonderful opportunity to innovate because you are facing a Technical Contradiction.

To solve Technical Contradictions it’s useful first to list out the contradictions in your normal language, in order to understand the true nature of the problem. Sometimes there is one big glaring contradiction – sometimes there are a number of smaller, linked contradictions – it is worth capturing them all as each one provides an opportunity to generate improvements.

Once you have done this, it’s worthwhile to identify whether there is one contradiction which is the most important: start by identifying what it is that you really want the most (if you could only have one thing from your new solution – what would it be?). Then think about what would get worse if you got this – sometimes you need to exaggerate the good thing to an extreme to make it clear what would inevitably go wrong (e.g. if you want to do an additional measure to check quality – think about what would go wrong if you did every potential measurement: you would have a very reliable and high quality system but the measurement process would take forever).

You then need to translate these contradictions into the 39 Technical Parameters, and look up in the Contradiction Matrix which of the 40 Inventive Principles are suggested as being most useful when facing this particular contradiction. Apply each Inventive Principle to generate new solutions, – think freely and use the Inventive Principles as triggers for your creativity. When you have a number of good new ideas, try to combine them together to create a new solution – and see if this new solution has any unresolved contradictions that you can solve!

Be sure to:

  • List what is good and bad about your solution in regular language

  • Look up your contradiction in the Contradiction Matrix to find the most useful Inventive Principles

  • Apply the Inventive Principles to generate practical solutions

  • Describe or draw up your system . . . find any remaining unresolved contradictions or new contradictions that have emerged . . . and repeat the process!

Finding and fixing something that’s gone wrong

This is what most people understand problem solving to be, but in reality it’s only one type of problem solving. Something’s gone wrong, and you have to find out what it is (problem uncovering) and how to fix it (problem solving).

A number of tools will help you pinpoint and uncover potential causes of these types of problem. A 9-box map helps you identify hazards and causes of problems. Function Analysis is useful for charting interactions between things and creating a well-defined model of the problem. Smart Little People helps you model what you think might be happening, as well as generate potential solutions. Thinking in Time and Scale helps uncover all potential causes of a problem or can highlight how a number of factors came together to cause the problem. These tools may also highlight areas about which you just don’t know enough – a useful outcome in itself.

If you’ve completed a Function Analysis you can look at applying the Standard Solutions to deal with the problems that have been revealed. You can also chart your solutions in 9 boxes to ensure you have thought of as many ideas as possible. The 9 boxes are useful when you can’t actually find the cause of your problem: if you think of as many solutions as possible (including ‘let it go wrong and fix it afterwards’) you may get the outcome you need – at least for now.

Try to:

  • Think in Time and Scale to uncover all potential causes of the problem

  • Use Smart Little People to model the problem and potential solutions

  • Use Function Analysis to create a model of all problems and Standard Solutions to generate solutions

  • Use a 9 box solution map to generate all potential solutions, including those for after the problem has occurred

Mapping and anticipating all possible problems

When you feel you need to find and prevent all potential problems, the best tool to use is Thinking in Time and Scale (also known as the 9 boxes).

Thinking in Time and Scale helps you restructure your view of a situation: by systematically considering what’s happening in the big picture and the detail, and how these change over time, you’ll uncover all potential problems. After that, you can use the same approach to ensure you’ve thought of as many solutions as possible to deal with problems before, during and after they occur.

Thinking in Time and Scale is useful for any situation in which you’re worried about problems and downsides. It also stops your attention being snagged on just a few problems when other potential issues also need to be addressed. When you think about a situation in this way, you can be confident that you’ve considered every possible place where problems can occur, both individually and as a result of a number of things going wrong.

Often problems only occur when more than one system fails. By considering the situation in 9 boxes you can map all these potential causes of problems, which allows you to tackle each one, giving you confidence that you’ve identified as many solutions as possible. It’s worth using the 9 boxes to think about solutions too, because it will stretch your thinking and encourage you to generate more solutions as a result.

Be sure to use these tools:

  • 9 boxes for hazards and potential causes of problems

  • 9 box solution map

Making a difficult decision (or choosing between options)

When you’re comparing very different options, it can be hard to make a decision. For example, deciding which car to buy based on a comparison of features and relative costs is easy, but comparing different modes of transport is considerably more difficult. Weighing up the relative benefits and problems associated with a car, motorbike, bicycle, bus and train is a complicated process. A car may provide a faster method of transport but parking might be difficult; thus for some journeys a bus may actually be faster as well as cheaper. A train journey may take longer but provides the opportunity to work or read a book. For these situations, comparing the Ideality of different options provides clarity of thought.

Because Ideality = ƩBenefits/(ƩCosts + Harms), the first step is to capture your Ideal Outcome. The Ideal Outcome is just a list of benefits (with no costs and harms just yet) against which to rank each system or solution. This is useful because benefits’ are just the outcomes you really want; you don’t have to consider how they’re delivered. This allows you to think very clearly about what you want, without making premature decisions about how you achieve it.

Completing this step is important because it ensures you capture all needs, which is essential when you’re making decisions and choosing between options. However, this step also produces another useful output: sometimes capturing benefits helps you see new ways of getting the things you want. You may face a situation in which all options are bad and you’re therefore unable to make a decision. Maybe the best way forward is to do something else entirely. When you’ve captured your Ideal Outcome it may be worth asking yourself whether you can get what you want in a completely different way.

If you’re trying to decide on a method of transport for getting to work, you may find it difficult because your commute is very long and inconvenient. In that case it might be worth checking whether you can change jobs, move houses or explore working from home one day a week; your constraints may not allow you to explore these options but looking into them may result in you finding a much more elegant solution.

When you have your list of benefits, you have one set of criteria against which to judge and compare your different options. And because they’re a series of outcomes, you can compare and rank very different systems against these same benefits.

For your journey to work you may have identified the following benefits in your preferred mode of transport: safe, reliable, quick, keeps you fit, fun and private. The next step is to complete the definition of Ideality by considering and comparing costs and harms, which will be different for each type of transport. You can consider the cost of buying, taxing and insuring a vehicle, plus the time and energy needed to drive and maintain it. Harms could include physical risk (you’re more likely to be injured on a bicycle or motorbike), risk of being late for work or the possibility of arriving feeling stressed, annoyed or tired.

When have captured all benefits, costs and harms, you have developed a set of criteria which allow you to compare very different systems and therefore to make more sensible and objective decisions. It’s possible to put numbers and weightings to each of these criteria if you wish, but often just seeing the different options described in this way makes the decision-making process easier.

Make sure you:

  • Identify your Ideal Outcome

  • Capture all potential solutions/systems

  • Compare the Ideality of different systems

Improving a system

This is actually the most common type of problem to solve. You have a system that works well . . . you just want it to be better.

Luckily, with TRIZ systems you can make improvements in three ways:

  • Increase benefits

  • Decrease costs

  • Decrease harms

A Function Analysis of your system and then effective Trimming will help you develop a system that does all the useful things you want, but with fewer components: it will have improved. You can also look at dealing with any harms or insufficiencies by applying the Standard Solutions to improve the system one problem at a time, and identify whether any Contradictions exist that are holding your system back. Resolving those issues will develop your system further.

Applying the Trends of Technical Evolution may also boost your system, particularly if you first identify which element of it is least developed. This relatively undeveloped part of your system will be the best place to start your problem solving. The Trend of Increasing Ideality can also be useful for adding any additional benefits.

Sometimes systems are being held back because they have a big unresolved Contradiction. Articulating that Contradiction and resolving it will dramatically improve your system. This is typically the case for systems that are relatively young and low down on the S-curve of their development. Resolving Contradictions in mature systems will generally result in less dramatic improvements: generally mature systems are improved by reducing costs and harms.

Ensure you:

  • Complete a Function Analysis

  • Improve by Trimming and applying the Standard Solutions

  • Apply the Trends

  • Solve Contradictions where appropriate

Wanting the impossible

When you’re defining what you want at the start of a project or task (such as with the Ideal Outcome) sometimes you realise that you want opposites – something that sounds so completely impossible it’s almost like a riddle – such as you want an application form long (so you capture all relevant information) but short (so it’s quick and easy to sift through large numbers of applications). A typical response to this situation is to decide on some pragmatic middle ground – but if you can uncover and articulate the underlying contradiction (which isn’t always easy) you will find ways of clever ways of getting all the things you want.

If you want opposites of the same thing you have a Physical Contradiction. To solve Physical Contradictions you need to work out how you can separate the different things that you want: you start from the viewpoint that you can get these opposites if you have different things either at different times, in different places, as a condition for different elements of your system or at different levels of scale. Once you have worked out how you can separate you can use the Separation Principles table to look up which Inventive Principles will be most useful for you.

Be sure you:

  • Define your Ideal Outcome

  • Describe the opposites you want in normal language

  • Identify how you can separate the things that you want – in Time, Space, on Condition or by Scale.

  • Look up in the Separation Principles table which of the 40 Inventive Principles are most useful.

  • Apply the relevant Inventive Principles to generate practical solutions.

Copying someone without copying

In a sense, copying someone – without directly copying him – is very similar to inventing something new. You often find yourself in this situation when a competitor launches a new product or improves an existing system which delivers something new.

You can copy your competitor in a very positive and creative way if you start from the perspective that the new product or improvement is showing you something you now realise you want. You can then use TRIZ to find alternatives and potentially better ways to get it fulfilling these newly recognised needs.

First, you need to complete your Ideal Outcome. Look at the system you want to copy and identify what’s good about it; capture all these as benefits it delivers (remember: benefits are the outcomes you want, not how you get them). Then extend this thinking by asking what other benefits you’d like in an ideal world; improvements will readily come to mind, because you will be focused on what you want to deliver

Once you have done this you can systematically search for other ways to deliver the benefits in the existing system by identifying alternative functions, or alternative solutions to the functions. You can also complete a Function Analysis of the system and look to improve it. In this case, however, you need to focus on Trimming. Trimming out components of the system (particularly if you start with components near the Prime Function) will help you develop a system that has the same outputs but delivers them in a very different way. In that way, you’ve copied someone without copying him!

Be sure to:

  • Complete your Ideal Outcome

  • Identify alternative functions from benefits; find other solutions from functions

  • Complete a Function Analysis and trim

Moving to the next generation

Sometimes a system works well but your competitors produce ‘me too’ products, and you lose market share. You need the next generation!

When you want to develop the next generation of your system, the Trends of Technical Evolution are your friends. Work out where your system currently lies on the Trends, and then use them to suggest improvements and even completely new systems. You can do this for your system as a whole but looking at the components is also worthwhile. For example, if you want to come up with the next-generation smartphone, you look at the system as a whole, but you can also consider the software, battery, aerial, screen, camera, microphone and so on. Developing each of these components along the Trends will help you generate the next step for your system and also predict its long-term future (and all the steps in-between).

Applying the Trends in Time and Scale will help you capture changes to the system and its components. You also need to consider the big picture, looking at how your customers, market and regulations may change. Thinking about the bigger picture helps you identify which areas you should be planning to move into, and uncovers new opportunities and customers.

Make sure you:

  • Apply the Trends of Technical Evolution

  • Think in Time and Scale

Reducing environmental impact

TRIZ has always encouraged the development of sustainable solutions: elegant, clever solutions, making use of available resources and reducing all harms. TRIZ helps you take a holistic view of systems. When you’re Thinking in Time and Scale, you’re considering not only your system but also the impact of the environment on your system and your system’s impact on the environment (the term ‘environment’ is used in its most general sense to refer not only to nature, but more generally the setting of your system and the interaction of other systems nearby). The consideration of harms also encourages you to look at reducing the impact of your system on the world around it to create a leaner, more efficient system.

Clever use of existing resources is the most useful tool for reducing environmental impact. Before you can use resources, however, you need to know they’re available. For this reason, thinking about and recording resources in Time and Scale, by completing a 9 box resource map, is useful.

To reduce your environmental impact, capture your system’s Ideality: the calculation of the ratio of benefits to costs and harms. Reducing both costs (which is any input required, including energy and materials) and harms (any output you don’t want, including noise, heat, emissions and pollution, including in disposal) will deliver a more efficient system that has less impact on the environment. Understanding your system’s Ideality in Time and Scale will also help you identify which parts of the process require more costs and which produce more harms; this information can help you focus on the best places to start making improvements.

The most comprehensive way to reduce environmental impact is to complete a Function Analysis of your system, focusing on the impact of various individual elements. Be specific and identify if wasted material, heat, noise, energy loss and so on have an environmental impact. You can then look to trim elements of your system to make it more efficient and reduce the inputs it requires. When you’re trying to reduce environmental impact, you’ll be looking not only to trim as many components as possible but also to transfer responsibility onto a resource. If removing components is impossible, still try to see if they can be partially trimmed in time or space.

Apply to your system the Standard Solutions for dealing with Harm to help you address environmental impact.

Make sure you use these tools:

  • 9 box resource map

  • Ideality Audit of all costs and harms within your system

  • Function Analysis of your existing system, including specific environmental outputs from your system

  • Trim with a particular eye to transferring the delivery of functions to the environment

  • Deal with harms by applying the Standard Solutions