TRIZ is a somewhat unique problem-solving technique. It was created by Genrikh Altshuler in Russia in 1946. The acronym (in Russian) stands for "Theory of Inventive Problem Solving." The basic premise of TRIZ is that history repeats itself, and therefore the problem in front of you was already solved at another time, another place, and another discipline. All you have to do is find how it was solved there, and apply it here. TRIZ development took decades (including the 25 years that Altshuler spent in a Soviet Gulag after being arrested for disclosing state secrets through his method) of reviewing millions of patents, and extracting "generic" problems that they solved, as well as extracting the "generic" solutions for them. The process is highly prescriptive, and illustrated by the following 4 steps:

  • Identify the specific problem that you have. You need to get to the root cause of the problem. It often calls for asking "why?" many times, until you found that root cause.
  • Find a "generic" TRIZ problem that is the most similar to your specific problem.
  • Lookup the "official" TRIZ solution (or several possible ones) for that TRIZ problem.
  • Translate the possible TRIZ solutions into your specific problem, and you have your specific solution!

Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? The most similar process to TRIZ is the concept of the legal precedent, in which you find previous cases with relatively (and applicable) circumstances, and the court decisions that were rendered as a result. In fact, this method is so prescriptive, that there was even an algorithm (ARIZ, the Algorithm for Inventive Problem Solving) developed to help automate it.

One of TRIZ's principles is that a problem can be described as a contradiction. There are two types of contradictions, physical and technical. Take, for example, the problem with an airplane's landing gear. In the early days (and in some planes today), the landing gear was fixed. Having a landing gear is a great feature for airplanes when they take off or land. Otherwise, the paint on the bottom of the plane can really get scraped... However, in the air, the landing gear adds drag and as a result slows the plane down, and increases fuel consumption. There is a contradiction between the need for the landing gear for landing, and the need for it to not be there during flight. Altshuler identified 39 different technical characteristics that can contradict with each other. He then, based on his research of millions of patents, identified 40 "Inventive Principles" that were used in those patents to solve those contradictions. He created a table that proposed which "standard" solutions would apply to any possible contradiction. In the landing gear example, the principle of "separation in time" would apply. What does that mean? It means that the landing gear will be down (and, preferably, locked...) for takeoff and landing, and up (and aerodynamically covered) during flight.

How can this principle be applied to other problems? Take for example the need you have for your boss to be in a meeting to approve the decisions made there, since you (or the other participants) are not authorized to make them. However, at the same time, you know that the dominating presence of your boss (you know who you are!) will prevent a good flow of ideas. A contradiction! You want something (here, someone) to be there and not to be there at the same time. Using the "separation in time" principle would suggest that you ask your boss to join the meeting in the last 15 minutes. The meeting can free-flow without his presence, yet he can put his "seal of approval" at the end.

TRIZ has evolved over the years, as more patents were researched, and as practitioners continued to refine the technique.

There are two keys to the effective use of TRIZ. The first is the ability to use analogies. On one hand, you need to be able to find an analogy to your problem in one of the TRIZ contradictions (or, if expanded, in any other problem that existed and was solved before). They may look very different and your strength will be in realizing that they share a lot in common. On the other hand, you need to find how the "generic" solution will apply to your specific circumstances.

The second key is the breadth of knowledge that a highly creative team must have. The TRIZ table may not always give you the answer, but the TRIZ principles may, as long as you have a broad enough knowledge of problems that were solved in other disciplines. Far remote from your area.

In 2000, after decades of cooperation with Russian scientists, Samsung adopted TRIZ, and in 2004 alone it trained more than 1,000 engineers in using the technique, which led to 50 new patents in 2003, and savings of over $100m.