Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Heroes of our time - Genrich Altshuller

Today I want to celebrate the life and works of Genrich Saulovitch Altshuller, inventor and creator of the process for the creative solution of technical problems known as TRIZ.

Altshuller's work is much less well known around the world than it deserves to be, based on a couple of unhappy circumstances. Firstly, because he worked in the Soviet Union during the Cold War he was denied the possibility of communication with the community of scientists and engineers in the West until very late in his career, and much of his written work remains untranslated from the original Russian. Secondly, the Soviet authorities regarded his work with suspicion, at one stage sending him to the Gulag, and later denying him facilities for teaching and research.

If we consider man's material progress over the centuries, there has been a steady accumulation of clever inventions and ideas which enable us to make better use of time and resources to serve whatever purposes we have in mind. This expanding base of knowledge and ingenuity has over long periods of time led us from the uncertain existence of the hunter-gather, through to the more productive and predictable subsistence agriculture, and most recently to the fantastically rich, productive, and safe life that industrial society provides us today.

Over the last few hundred years or so, technical advances have been described and communicated in textbooks, research papers and patent libraries available to all, so that the pace of improvement has been multiplied by one mind being able to build on the thinking of strangers, even when separated by barriers of distance and language.

However, much as we can make better use of creative advances than we could in the past, the actual process of creating useful new ideas has remained stubbornly mysterious and impenetrable. Many discoveries and inventions have come about apparently by chance inspiration. Others have been the outcome of extended programmes of thousands or tens of thousands of laboratory trials. In view of the waste involved in both waiting for inspiration to strike and in conducting an exhaustive series of trials, many scientists, engineers, psychologists and philosophers have sought - with little or no success - a better way to stimulate the creative spark. It is Altshuller's greatness that he set about the seemingly contradictory task of systematising this type of creativity.

The foundation of his approach was the observation that inventions of different types, in different technical fields, could nevertheless be related through being instances of the application of a more fundamental underlying principle.

He set out, with collaborators, to trawl through the patent libraries of the world, and to distil from the hundreds of thousands of recorded inventions, the few inventive principles involved. He identified forty of these in all, independent principles each of which underpinned thousands of novel inventions in a wide range of technical fields. The basic use of his list of inventive principles is simplicity itself. When 'stuck' with a technical problem requiring a solution outside the textbook, one can simply take each inventive principle in turn, asking, for example "Could 'Curvature' help here? ". If, after due consideration, there doesn't seem to be any way to apply curvature to get closer to the necessary solution, move on to the next principle, and so on down the whole list if necessary. It seems in a way extraordinary to capture the elusive flame of creative thinking in a check-list, but the use of the principles does not entirely remove the need for creativity, it simply makes it a lot less difficult in practice.

The next advance, after identifying the inventive principles, was the observation that the inventive principles were in general applied to resolve a contradiction - for example, a railway carriage needs to be light - for reasons of carrying capacity, fuel consumption, etc; but it also needs to be strong, for reasons of safety, and carrying capacity. In this case the principle of 'Curvature' leads to the solution of a rigid curved shell which provides structural strength with much less weight than a chassis / framework / floor / wall /roof configuration.

Moving from this specific case of curvature resolving a contradiction between weight and strength - which is a contradiction that constantly comes up because in general, stronger things are heavier, and lighter things are weaker - the next step is to see whether the same logic applies to each of the inventive principles, in terms of each principle frequently being the basis for resolving specific types of contradiction between technical parameters. Re-analysing the patent library information to identify each invention as the application of an inventive principle to resolve solution to a technical contradiction, we come up with three things: a list of technical parameters, such as strength, weight, which frequently feature in contradictions; a matrix of pairs of these parameters frequently forming contradictions; and for each pair in a contradiction, a list of the inventive principles which have frequently been used to resolve the contraction. This is then put together in the form of the 'Contradiction Matrix', which allows us to further accelerate our creative solution-finding, by narrowing down our search to first examine those principles which solve the specific contradiction we face. Creativity is now down to a three-step process: 1) identify the technical contraction to be resolved; 2) identify which of the 40 principles applies to this contradiction 3) work with each principle to find a solution.

This is only the beginning of Altshuller's work, but in itself is fantastically useful for everyone in a technical profession, and for those of us working in more nebulous areas, we can build on it ourselves in two ways. Firstly, many of the inventive principles are not specific to engineering and scientific uses, so we can apply them directly to administrative or managerial issues. Secondly, we can, from our own experience and study, identify other inventive principles specific to our own field, which we then use in the same way as Altshuller's.


Wiki on Genrich Saulovitch Altshuller

Wiki on TRIZ

The TRIZ Journal TRIZ Journal

© steve_roberts 2007

1 comment:

totallyun-pc said...

That is a blog and a half.
The gist of it, unless i'm mistaken, is that there are many occasions where, if you attempt to re invent the wheel you get a slight tweak that improves the design.
In my line of work, this is tried on a yearly basis by thousands of people looking for personal advancement.

The moral here is that, if it isn't for the greater good, it is fundamentally flawed no matter how much we champion it. But for the designer, riches await, for the absolute priveledge of shitting on everybody else.!