My I-TRIZ Story
My first exposure to TRIZ came in the early 1990s when, as a graduate student, I was searching for a dissertation topic. I have always been a creative and inventive person and by that time in my career, I had been a software engineer for ten years, so, not surprisingly, I came up with the idea of “making a computer help a person invent things.” Since I was studying distributed artificial intelligence (DAI) in graduate school at the University of South Carolina, I envisioned a “distributed blackboard” application featuring artificially intelligent agents communicating with one or more humans via the blackboard from distant places via the Internet. I envisioned each agent possessing expertise in a particular domain and the invention session benefitting from the interactive real-time input of multiple agents from several domains. I envisioned the invention emerging on the screen as the biological and artificial experts collaborated. (As I write this some 25 years later, this is still an unrealized, yet very possible and very needed innovation.)
Of course, to achieve this vision, one had to have artificially intelligent agents that knew how to invent things! I knew from my studies this was not yet a reality but I assumed there would have been research in this area. When I went to the library to do my literature search (this was well before Google) and searched for previously existing work in this area, I encountered a couple of Genrich Altshuller’s books, translated into English about ten years prior. One book described ARIZ, the “algorithm for inventive problem solving.” I decided my dissertation would be to write a piece of software to implement this “algorithm.” However, when I presented my dissertation idea to my advisor, he discouraged the idea saying, “This sounds wonderful but I, nor anyone else on the faculty here knows anything about TRIZ or ARIZ so you will have no help.” Therefore, I abandoned my original idea and moved on to a different dissertation topic.
However, I never forgot TRIZ and having read Altshuller’s books, I found myself using some TRIZ concepts and ideas to solve problems, although not formally trained in the art. After graduate school, I started my own Internet services company (by then the “dot com boom” was in full swing) and later became a senior software architect at a company developing global communication and teaming systems. In these roles, I commonly used TRIZ principles to solve problems or at the very least to see problems in a different way. However, I used the tools and techniques privately. I quickly became known as a “good idea person.”
In 2003, I returned to academia as a professor interested in pursuing my own research agenda. One of the first things I did was search for “TRIZ.” (Google and many other Internet resources were certainly available by then) I was interested in what, if anything, had been done with TRIZ since my early days of researching the topic ten years earlier. I immediately discovered Ideation International, Inc. and I-TRIZ. Ideation International had begun ten years earlier (ironically about the same time I was researching my original dissertation idea) to commercialize their version of TRIZ called “Ideation TRIZ” or I-TRIZ. I was soon in communication with Zion Bar-El, the founder and CEO of Ideation International as well as Alla Zusman and Boris Zlotin both original collaborators of Altshuller. I traveled to the Ideantion International headquarters in Detroit where I completed the “Inventive Problem Solving” (IPS) training.
Having known something about classical TRIZ for over a decade, I immediately saw the benefits of I-TRIZ. Instead of the 40 Principles from classical TRIZ, I-TRIZ uses some 400 “operators.” The I-TRIZ operators are innovative concepts gleaned from the study of millions of patents. I-TRIZ operators are quite detailed and specific whereas the TRIZ 40 principles are more high-level and generic. The idea struck me that I-TRIZ operators are the distillation of human innovative thought –a description I have used ever since. To me, I visualize the knowledgebase of operators as proven solutions waiting for new problems to solve. As innovators, our job is to find which proven solutions work the best for whatever problem we are trying to solve.
Another major benefit I saw in I-TRIZ is its ability to be taught. Historically, classical TRIZ “education” had followed the master/apprentice model where the trainee works at the feet of the master over a period of years to learn the art. I immediately understood the I-TRIZ methodologies could be taught in a traditional Western style. I knew to bring I-TRIZ to the masses, we had to create courseware for grade school, higher education, and professional students. Over the next two years I converted portions of the IPS training I had received into a set of traditional lecture/homework/exam modules and taught them as part of special topics and senior seminar courses. It takes teaching something at least three times, fine tuning the material and delivery each time, to make a terrific course.
After experimenting with the course material over several semesters, I created a permanent course named INFO 307: Systematic Innovation. Since 2007, this has been a required course taught at the sophomore level in the Information Management & Systems degree program housed in the Informatics & Engineering Systems Department at the University of South Carolina Upstate. It is a required course because we want all graduates to be out-of-the-box thinkers and problem solvers and I-TRIZ is a great way to teach students how to think that way.
Also during this time, I was improving in my ability to use I-TRIZ to innovatively solve problems. At the time, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce held an annual innovation contest called New Idea for a New Carolina. The contest was open to the public and invited inventions, innovations, and new business ideas across a number of different categories awarding cash prizes to the winning ideas as voted by a select panel of judges. The top-rated idea won the Grand Prize and usually two other ideas won second-place and third-place awards. Over the next seven years, using I-TRIZ, I came up with more than two dozen ideas for this competition. In all, a total of seventeen of my ideas placed in the top ten. In 2008, my “Scentinel” idea (nanotechnology sensors for emergency first responders) received the Grand Prize in the competition. Four of my other ideas placed “in the money” (second or third) in this competition, each receiving a cash prize. I know of only one other competitor with more than one prize-winning idea and he had only two winners. I know of only two other people who placed two ideas in the top ten. No one came close to my record of seventeen top-ten ideas.
I was able to achieve this by using I-TRIZ to reason about problems in multiple categories and see the problem from perspectives different than others. Employing I-TRIZ systems analysis and the operator knowledgebase has given me a unique ability to view systems and problems from a variety of different viewpoints. The operators give me an already-proven set of innovative concepts to apply to the problems. I-TRIZ thus allows me to construct many possible solutions to a problem regardless of the domain (the reason I was able to work in multiple categories in the competition.)
Over the years of teaching the INFO 307 course in Systematic Innovation, I have tweaked the courseware after every semester in response to what has and what has not worked with students in the classroom. As I have continually improved the course, I have evolved the course material away from the initial IPS training I received at Ideation International. That is not to say I have re-invented I-TRIZ. I still teach the vast majority of the things I was initially taught. Mostly, I have introduced new ideas and “rules of thumb” to the system analysis phase of the IPS methodology. One thing my additions do is make the systems analysis part of the process more of an engineering discipline. Another thing my additions do is make the abstract descriptions derived as part of the “8-way” process more consistent and more tightly tied together. This makes the analysis portion of the methodology easier to teach to undergraduate students and easier to assess their expertise level with the material. I now teach six different ways to evolve problem formulator diagrams from systems analysis, and in many cases, can teach how to go straight to problem formulation and actually skip the systems analysis portion (with some experience).
I have added “states” to the systems analysis phase of the IPS methodology and have tied the list of states to the cause/effect description. This, along with “rules of the road” in the input/output description and the supersystem/subsystem description turns the system analysis phase into almost a step-by-step process, easy for students to learn and practice.
The 400 I-TRIZ operators can be intimidating. One tool I have created for my students are three “one-page” summary sheets. When one works with the Innovation Workbench software enough one realizes the fundamental problem-solving strategy built into the IWB is based on three “directions:” alternatives, elimination, and resolving contradictions. Every useful function in a problem formulator diagram leads to an alternative direction, every harmful function leads to an elimination direction, and every contradiction leads to a resolution direction. Each of the three directions comprise a subset of the operators. In the IWB, the operators are grouped into multiple sub-categories requiring one to traverse a large tree. Students usually find this hard to work with and confusing. I have “walked” the trees, traversing each branch to map out the interconnections, and have compressed into a single page a good representation of the operators found in each tree. In effect, I have “flattened” each of the three trees to a single page. Each summary sheet has about 100 operators listed grouped in a handful of categories. This provides students with a quick-look resource for problem solving and invention. These summary sheets are also a good way for students to start learning operators.
I use the summary sheets on a regular basis. I have each one taped to the walls in my office. As I work on a new problem solution, invention, or innovation, I walk around my office and look at a sheet picking a few operators to think about. Sometimes, choosing operators from the lists is random and other times I use a more systematic approach. In this way, I have come up with too many new ideas to count. I call it “walk around innovation.”
I have taught the I-TRIZ course for over eleven years and have instructed more than 500 students. Each semester, I challenge students with an innovation problem and I see students arrive at excellent solutions even though they have no engineering training and very limited background (they are usually 19 years old). Several students have commented to me after finishing the class how I-TRIZ has changed the way they look at the world. I can certainly understand that. I am unable to look at anything without automatically thinking about how it could be improved using this operator or that operator!
I find myself inventing continuously.
-Ron Fulbright, PhD, 2018