Achieving perfect innovation

In my mind, perfect solutions or product/service improvements are ones that deliver additional benefits over and above those that can currently be realised from an existing solution or product/service. As I’ve previously explored, the greater the additional benefits, the greater the innovation. But is this enough and does it suggest great design?

In this day and age there is strong support for the notion that great design should not only deliver the greatest benefits possible but also do this whilst minimising any associated costs and eliminating any undesirable consequences (harms). In TRIZ terms, this equates to moving towards what is termed ‘ideality’. Something that is truly ideal delivers all the benefits without any costs or harms and whilst achieving ‘ideality’ might be unrealistic, it could easily be argued that great designs move towards it.

Often, how to reduce/eliminate costs or harms may be obvious and the solutions may immediately spring to mind but there are likely to be times when this task is somewhat more challenging.

Amongst many systematic approaches to reducing or eliminating costs and harms, there are a couple which stand out as being particular favourites with many of my clients, the first of which is trimming.

Trimming is all about eliminating parts of a system (a system being anything where two or more components interact with one another, this could be a physical system or a process) whilst retaining all the useful functions of that component. A recent example of trimming was the elimination of car tax discs where the function of the tax disc was transferred to another part of the system, in this case the license plate. By doing so, the function of the tax disc was no longer required, therefore it could be trimmed and in turn the car has become incrementally more ideal. This used the third of three basic rules for trimming: ‘a component can be trimmed if the useful function is transferred to another component in the system’.

The second favoured systematic approach is to make the best possible use of available resources (ideally those that are readily available at no or low cost).

A good illustration of this is that of the changes made to corrosion testing, when traditionally a sample (typically a cube) of the subject to be tested would be weighed and then placed in acid in a platinum lined vessel. After a given period of time the sampled would be removed and weighed again to determine the weight loss and therefore the rate of corrosion. The problem with this is that:

  • Platinum is very expensive, resulting in most laboratories only having one testing vessel
  • Testing has to be carried out sequentially
  • Therefore, it is time consuming and costly

By identifying all available resources, the list (simplified for illustrative purposes) might look like this:

  • Subject
  • Acid
  • Vessel
  • Platinum

Assuming that we have identified that to make an improvement to this system an alternative to the existing platinum lined vessel is required we could evaluate each of the available resources for their usefulness in providing a solution. This may enable us to conclude that the subject itself could become the vessel. Bore a hole in the subject, weigh it, fill it with acid for a pre-determined period of time, remove the acid and re-weigh the subject and make the necessary calculations.

This solution is not only considerably more cost effective but also means that testing can now take place simultaneously, radically speeding up the process.

In hindsight, you might say that the above two examples are blindingly obvious but then aren’t all good innovations?

What this does illustrate though, is that by applying systematic approaches to design and problem solving it is possible to develop great solutions that not only deliver additional benefits but also reduce costs and harms thus making incremental steps towards the ideal.

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