Much of creativity is focused on solving problems or creating new solutions to replace or improve upon what already exists. But sometimes the problem we

In the innovation and creativity world, we spend a lot of time solving problems or designing new things to replace or improve what already exists.  Usually, the problem is complex or the solution is not obvious (or it wouldn’t need creativity, right?).

Sometimes, though, the problem is not one of trying to improve something, but to find the cause of a failure in a system, product, or organization. Something has gone wrong, maybe on a once in a while basis, and we can’t figure out why. We develop hypothesis derived from checklists we had previously developed, or from conventional brainstorming ideation techniques.  But we don’t always get to the root cause and have to deal with the problem again at a future date.

Those of you familiar with TRIZ problem solving know that it has an overriding algorithm and set of tools in a toolkit.  Many don’t know that within that toolkit is a very unique process for solving failure related problems.  We use the simple TRIZ algorithm in reverse.  Normally, we use TRIZ as follows:

  1. Define the ideal state for the system, product, etc.
  2. Identify the resources available for achieving this state
  3. Identify and resolve the contradictions that prevent this state from being achieved

The concepts of the ideal state (ideal final result, ideality) and resources are far deeper than the words imply, as those of you who have used TRIZ know.  If what we have is a failure problem, we need to invert this process as follows. We’ll use an example of a car failing to start as a simple example.  Maybe your friendly mechanic or neighbor has given all the help they can, and still, once in a while, the car won’t start.

  1. Define the ideal state: we want the car to start every time we start the ignition
  2. Invert this statement: we don’t want the car to start
  3. Exaggerate the inverted ideal statement: We don’t ever want the car to start
  4. How would I accomplish this?  What resources are required?

Now this may sound very simplistic, but what we have done is to change the basic question from “what went wrong?” (A checklist type of approach) to “how do I make it go wrong?” (A pro-active saboteurial question).  We’ve changed the question from “what?” to “how?”.  This puts peoples’ brains in a different quadrant—they are now permitted to be evil and do things not normally permitted! There is no time when I have run this process on electronic bank fraud, food contamination, or chemical releases that this process did not produce answers not obvious in the first place, greatly improved answers, or THE answer that wasn’t even considered in the first place.

In a project with a chemical plant which had a release of a toxic chemical from a scrubber (despite having complied with all the required checklist processes from their company, OSHA, and the EPA).  It turned out that the flow to the scrubber was inadequate to contain the normal flow.  Now this was something that should not have happened and was already on the checklist, but in the process of this analysis, we used this reverse algorithm in the following way:

  1. We want no release of chemical from the system
  2. We want a release of chemicals to the atmosphere
  3. We want the system to leak ALL THE TIME and cause severe environmental damage all over the surrounding geographic region.
  4. What resources do I need?

The normal review process here was to review every pressure, flow, temperature, etc. and ask the consequences of not being at the specified point (Higher? Lower?), but not to question the fundamental design.  Approaching this problem using TRIZ in reverse, we ask the question, “what resources do we need to have a leak?”  The group starts our saying things like high pressure, high temperature, etc. but none of these is sufficient without another resource—A HOLE.  We then ask about the hole at the top of the scrubbing system. It turns out that it’s there because we have to vent an inert gas used to bubble into a storage tank to obtain its level reading.  Once we realize this, we ask if there are other indirect ways of measuring level not requiring a gas which must be scrubbed.  The answer is yes, so the whole root cause of the problem disappears and the hole and its associated scrubbing system are no longer required.

Though this was a technical example, consider the use of this thinking process in other areas such as:

  1. How can I improve communication within my organization?  (How do I make sure that NO ONE ever finds out ANYTHING that’s going on around here?)
  2. How can I improve the variability of my product quality? (How do I make sure that I NEVER produce any quality product and am shut down by the FDA?)
  3. How can I improve my on-time delivery? (How do I make sure my product NEVER arrives on time and all customers are lost?

In practice, there are additional tools and techniques to assist in this basic algorithm, but just changing your thinking process to become a saboteur will produce new answers you never thought of!

Jack Hipple is a principal in Innovation-TRIZ, Inc., a consulting company specializing in unique approaches to TRIZ training, the application of TRIZ to non-technical and organizational problems, and the integration of TRIZ with other innovation and creativity tools.