A Higher Plane Of Problem-Solving Can the theories of a dead Russian dissident solve your company's most vexing technological challenges? A cult of business consultants swears that they can.
By Andy Raskin

(Business 2.0) – In a 1948 letter addressed "Personally To Comrade Stalin," Genrich Altshuller, a 22-year-old lieutenant in the Caspian Sea Military Navy, argued that the Soviet Union's approach to technology was chaotic and ignorant. A prodigious inventor (by the 10th grade, he had patented an underwater diving apparatus and built a rocket-propelled boat), Altshuller wrote that he had devised a systematic approach by which any technical problem could be solved. A little over a year later, Soviet officials invited him to discuss his ideas in Tbilisi, Georgia; upon arrival, he was arrested and sentenced to 25 years in the gulag.

Altshuller died in 1998, but his theory of inventive problem-solving, or TRIZ (the acronym for the Russian-language equivalent, pronounced trees), is fast becoming the innovation "it" concept around the globe. Engineers at Dow Chemical are developing new polymers with TRIZ. United Technologies's Otis Elevator division has used it to prevent escalator belts from wearing. Samsung Electronics recently brought four Altshuller disciples--two Russians, one Belorussian, and one Ukranian--to South Korea to teach its scientists the TRIZ gospel. Boeing senior engineer Don Masingale, who studies TRIZ "on weekends and vacations," estimates that more than 450 of his colleagues are TRIZ-trained and credits TRIZ-inspired designs with selling Boeing's new 767 refueler jet to the governments of Italy and Japan. "Several teams of engineers working for several years could not come up with a solution as elegant as the one we got with TRIZ in a few weeks," he says.

There's powerful logic behind such fanaticism: Altshuller's fundamental assertion is that innovation follows a finite set of patterns. Know those patterns and you can not only solve seemingly unsolvable problems but also predict the challenges you'll face next. Engineers love TRIZ because it treats creativity as a discipline to be mastered, not as right-brain hocus-pocus. Says TRIZ consultant Ellen Domb, publisher of the online TRIZ Journal: "It appeals to people who don't like the let-yourself-go-and-be-free approach."

That loosey-goosey take on innovation is, after all, the one that most U.S. companies rely on to foster creativity. Credit that to legendary advertising executive Alex Osborn--the "O" in the ad agency BBDO--who coined the term "brainstorming" in his 1953 book, Applied Imagination. In his view, creative ideas reside in people's minds--thanks to good genes, good luck, or both--but are trapped by fear of rejection. Create a judgment-free environment, he reasoned, and you'll unleash a torrent.

While Osborn was getting advertisers to open up, Altshuller was doing hard labor in coal mines, refining an alternative hypothesis. He believed that solutions to difficult problems could be found not by probing the nooks and crannies of the brain but by studying the way others had already attacked similar problems.

How does it work? American TRIZniks, as some are known, love to cite the manure-drying conundrum. Every year in Chino, Calif., dairy farmers collect more than 1 million tons of wet cattle dung. One farm was using electric ovens to dry its cow patties for transport as fertilizer, but two years ago, as California's energy prices soared, electric drying became prohibitively expensive. So the farm hired engineers to design a cheaper process. In a three-day TRIZ workshop, the farmers learned to transform their problem from "How can we dry manure more efficiently?" to "What's the cheapest way to take water out of something mushy?" Searching the global patent database, they found a 40-year-old idea for turning orange juice into concentrate using hydrophilic gas, which bonds to water molecules and bubbles them out. The farm is reportedly building a plant that will use such a gas to dry manure for a fraction of the cost of electric dehydration.

Altshuller postulated that, at its core, every technical problem embodies a conflict. Dry the stuff, but consume less energy. Manufacture a powerful engine, but make it lighter. Build a high-capacity hard drive, but make it smaller. He defined 39 sources of conflict: strength, stability, brightness, volume, temperature, and so on. Then he pored over thousands of patents and grouped the conflict resolutions he found into "40 principles"--including segmentation (divide an object into independent parts), prior action (perform changes to an object in advance), and asymmetry (replace symmetrical forms with asymmetrical ones).

After Stalin's death in 1953--and Altshuller's release from prison 18 months later--Altshuller published what he called the TRIZ contradiction matrix, which recommends a handful of principles for every conflict. Can't find a good trade-off between vibration and weight? Try principle six, universality: "Make one component perform multiple functions."

Take the Ford Escort, for instance. In the mid-1990s, Ford engineers found that when they installed an airbag, the car's steering wheel shook so much while the engine idled that they feared lost sales and increased warranty costs. At first they tried to dampen the vibration by attaching a lead block to the steering column. That helped, but not enough; more weight would have made the column too heavy. Ford quality manager Larry Smith (who now moonlights as president of the Altshuller Institute in Worcester, Mass.) hired a TRIZ consultant who recognized the conflict and encouraged the team to apply the universality principle. Searching for an existing part that could serve as a dampener, the team found one: the airbag itself. By attaching it to the column with flexible connectors, Ford brought the vibration in line with the competition's and even reduced steering-wheel shake when the car traveled over bumps.

That TRIZ made its way to Ford was a small miracle. The problem-solving system began its westward migration when Altshuller's students emigrated to the United States after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But until recently TRIZ books and training materials were impenetrable to all but ex-Soviets. "It was hard to walk into an American company and teach this, using examples about Russian mining equipment," explains TRIZ expert Domb, who is on a self-described mission to "multiculturalize" the ideas. Today firms such as Ideation Intl., based in Southfield, Mich., and Boston-based Invention Machine offer not only modernized TRIZ training (primarily to manufacturers) but also software that encodes the matrix.

Tom Ruhe, an engineer in Hewlett-Packard's imaging and printing group, used Invention Machine's TechOptimizer program to design the HP DeskJet 990C, one of the company's best-selling ink-jet printers in 2001. With little time for testing, Ruhe had to make sure the paper-output mechanism met specifications. So he employed an old TRIZ trick: Design a product that will fail in exactly the way you don't want it to. The software suggested how: principle 30, "Replace customary constructions with flexible membranes." When paper was too flimsy, it tended to fold over rather than get pushed out. Ruhe couldn't prevent users from inserting flimsy paper, but he was able to change the action of the pushers to handle it more reliably. "TRIZ lets you understand how a product will fail before you even build the hardware," he says.

Of course, TRIZ can't directly solve problems; it just gives surprisingly good hints about where to look. That has led some TRIZniks to try extending the principles beyond their manufacturing roots. Six Sigma Academy, in Scottsdale, Ariz., now incorporates TRIZ in business-process design. At the Altshuller Institute's TRIZCon2003 (held in Philadelphia in March), speakers showed how TRIZ could work for branding and biology. Practitioners have even adapted the 40 principles to software development, quality control, and architecture. (Sometimes it's a stretch, though. In "40 Principles With Social Examples," published in the June 2001 TRIZ Journal, Altshuller's principle eight, counterweight--"Compensate for the weight of an object by providing a lifting force"--becomes "Send juvenile offenders to boot-camp environment.")

Altshuller developed Parkinson's disease in the 1980s, but he continued to write and teach TRIZ. In And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared, published in 1984, he warmly encourages children to invent, though the book might have benefited from examples more kid-friendly than fertilizer factories.

Just weeks before his death in Petrozavodsk, Russia, Altshuller was asked what would happen if TRIZ really caught on. "If people can create a strong theory that allows for understanding the technology explosion," he answered, "they will live in a crazy but exciting and interesting world." TRIZ can't tell you exactly how to enjoy that world, but for inspiration you can always look to principle 21: "Perform hazardous operations at very high speed." --ANDY RASKIN