Quantity, not quality equals better results

The title almost conflicts with logic as one might assume that best results are achieved through qualitative thinking. Yet research and personal practical experience continually and increasingly demonstrates that the opposite is true. The best design results are achieved through quantitative thinking.

In their book Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, David Bayles and Ted Orland reveal a story about a ceramics teacher who divided a class into two haves instructing one group that their grades would be dependent upon quantity, so they should aim to produce as many ceramics as they can. The other group were told that they would be graded on one good piece of work. The observations were that whilst the quantity group busily churned out piles of work (and learning from their mistakes) the quality group sat theorising about perfection and had little to show for their efforts.

It does seem to make sense that if we are in an early design or solution development stage the more ideas and concepts that we can generate the more likely we are to find the best design or solution. The bigger the pool of ideas and concepts the more likely it is to contain the winner. Yet the evidence is that a majority of engineers involved in design and problem solving say that they would benefit immensely by exploring more design alternatives during concept design (in a survey conducted by PTC, a leading provider of technology solutions, the figure was 92%). Often, lack of time is cited as the main reason why this doesn’t happen, although I have alternative views on this.

The impact of investing time and efficient thinking tools and processes early in a design stage can be staggering. Not too long ago I was involved in an extremely high priority £1.7bn project where circa 90% of the design work had been completed. As the client closed in on the implementation phase it was decided that the current designs should be challenged in case there was a lower cost and faster way of delivering the solution to what was a critical project. A small team was assembled, and some systematic thinking tools and processes were introduced and applied. In a matter of weeks, the net result was that from the vast pool of ideas, concepts and alternatives a new design was carefully identified and selected. This new design would deliver all the required functionality and benefits whilst reducing the total cost by approximately £1bn and bring the commissioning date forward by 3 years. A jaw dropping result and in hindsight (which incidentally, I personally find a difficult thing to live with!) it would have made far more sense to have invested more up front in order to have identified the best solution earlier.

I have argued for a very long time that insufficient emphasis is placed on the need for divergent thinking when ideas, concepts and/or solutions are required, and whilst the benefits of this may seem obvious, making it happen is somewhat more challenging, though very feasible.

Perhaps it is time for designers and solution developers to be recognised and rewarded for the number of concepts, ideas and solutions they produce rather than for their quality.


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.

For more information on how we support our clients in all aspects of innovation, visit http://www.problem-engineering.com.

Access the world’s knowledge of inventive principles

It is estimated that 99.7% of all problems have been solved somewhere and at some point in time. The solution may have been found to solve a similar problem in an unrelated industry on the other side of the globe and the solution may have been discovered many years ago. Nonetheless, it is extremely rare to encounter a problem where a solution has not already been developed.

The problem with this though, is that the task of researching and collating all this information is a massive one and probably too daunting to be seriously considered by most of us but how useful would it be to have access to all this knowledge especially when faced with really tough technical problems?

Those of you that are familiar with TRIZ (Geinrich Altschuller’s approach to inventive problem solving) will probably be aware that an easily accessible database of this knowledge already exists.

Altschuller defines the really tough technical problems that we face as either physical or technical contradictions.

A physical contradiction creates a conflict with the same parameters. For example, a coffee cup should be hot to keep the coffee inside hot but it should also be cold so that it can be comfortably held by the user. Here the same parameter ‘heat’ needs to be high and low, therefore a physical contradiction exists. Physical contradictions are solved using one of four separation principles by separating in time, in space, between parts and the whole or upon condition.

Technical contradictions on the other hand occur when different parameters are in conflict with each other. For example, the motor should run faster but at the same time it should not generate more heat and therefore the parameters of speed and temperature are in conflict. Technical contradictions are typically solved through compromise but Altschuller claims that problems should be solved without compromise. But how?

Altschuller spent much of his time analysing patents from all over the world in a bid to identify if there were any repeatable patterns that could assist with problem solving. This analysis (initially based upon approximately 50,000 patents) led him to identify just 40 inventive principles that successfully solve technical contradictions. Subsequently millions of patents have been analysed and the original 40 inventive principles remain the same.

Altschuller also found that there are 39 standard parameters which might conflict with one another in a system (speed and temperature being two of them). These 39 parameters can create 1482 possible conflicts.

By placing these parameters on a 39 x 39 matrix these 1482 conflicts become clear and it is possible to immediately identify which of the 40 inventive principles have been used before to solve these conflicts, putting the world’s knowledge of inventive principles at your fingertips.

Systematically solving physical and technical contradictions is just one of the many proven tools and processes that greatly assist with problem solving and innovation. If you would like more information on TRIZ and our other systematic approaches or if you would like to receive a copy of the contradiction matrix, I would love to hear from you.

Systematic Innovation – The Book

Book Cover

Systematic Innovation, my new book, is now published and will be available from next week.

The purpose of the book is to bring together in one step-by-step guide a powerful suite of systematic tools and processes that make innovation happen.

Based upon years of development and refinement, the systematic approaches have been successfully applied and have helped clients develop new products and services, solve tough and complex problems (often those of a highly technical nature) and innovate.

Innovation is a process.  It can be learnt and easily applied and this book will show you how.

The chapters include:

Behavioural Science – an exploration of the suppressants that restrict our ability to generate ideas and concepts, solve problems and innovate. These include individual and group thinking issues.

Leadership and management of innovation – explores the significance that effective leadership and management has on innovation. It will either encourage innovation and allow it to flourish or create an environment where it will wither on the vine.

Systematic innovation (the process) – a look at the innovation process from start to finish that if followed, guarantees success.

The innovation pipeline – this is a great framework for helping to manage your innovation flow. It is comprised of seven segments from IP-1 to IP-7, each representing a different set of core activities and can be populated by products and services at various stages of their development and lifecycle.

Problem or design definition – defining problems correctly is essential if we are to develop truly effective solutions. Similarly, if we are designing something, we need to be clear about what that something is before we make a start. In both scenarios it is also important to understand peripheral information such as context, constraints, barriers etc. The book explores all the above and more.

Systematic thinking tools and processes – this provides a wide and varied collection of systematic thinking tools and processes that when applied enable the generation of high volumes of ideas, concepts and solutions.

Selection and prioritisation – this includes my favoured and most commonly applied approaches to selection and prioritisation of ideas and solutions.

Implementation – approaches to ensure that we successfully implement our chosen ideas and solutions.

Measure, monitor, review and feedback – it is essential that we know how we are doing and this chapter is all about what and how to effectively measure, monitor, review and feedback (MMRF).

Systematic approaches (quick guides) – these are a handy reference to remind you of the key steps to the systematic approaches.

Innovation is not just about developing new products and technologies, we can benefit from innovation in just about everything we do and the systematic approaches described in the book have been applied to many different focusses.

These powerful approaches will enable you to:

  • Generate high volumes of ideas and concepts on demand
  • Solve the toughest of problems
  • Innovate
  • Manage individual and group thinking
  • Make meetings more productive
  • Lead and manage ‘innovation’
  • Develop new products and services
  • Improve processes
  • Engineer value
  • Select and prioritise your best ideas and concepts

Systematic Innovation will soon be available through Amazon but if you are interested in receiving a copy straight away, please do contact me and I’ll make the necessary arrangements.

Transformational Leadership and Innovation

Transformational Leadership is widely considered as the most popular approach to leadership today. Not only popular but also widely regarded as the most effective.

There is an abundance of research evidence that clearly demonstrates that groups led by Transformational Leaders have higher levels of performance and satisfaction than other groups led by a different type of leader.

Transformational Leaders have positive expectations and believe that their followers can do their best. They inspire, empower and stimulate followers to exceed ‘normal’ levels of performance.

The concept of Transformational Leadership was initially introduced by James MacGregor Burns (leadership expert and presidential biographer) and later built upon by researcher Bernard Bass. Bass proposes that Transformational Leadership can be defined according to the impact it has on the followers of a Transformational Leader. It engenders the trust, respect and admiration of followers. Bass also suggests that there are four key components to Transformational Leadership.

The Four Components of Transformational Leadership

Idealised Influence – Transformational Leaders are a role model, they ‘walk the talk’. Followers trust and respect the leader, they emulate this and internalise his or her values and ideals. This in turn helps develop the follower’s leadership characteristics.

Inspirational Motivation – Transformational Leaders inspire and motivate followers. They have a clear vision and are able to articulate it in an inspirational way. Their behaviour provides real meaning and challenge to the work of their followers.

Intellectual Stimulation – Transformational Leaders have and demonstrate a genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers. Their lines of communication are open and followers feel free and at ease to share ideas that are recognised. Concern is given to the individual development needs of followers.

Individual Consideration – Transformational Leaders solicit new and innovative approaches towards the performance of work and challenge followers to be innovative and creative. They encourage solutions to problems from followers.

Whilst Transformational Leadership is not only the most popular approach to leadership today but also widely regarded as the most effective, it is easy to see the clear link between Transformational Leadership and the need to successfully foster innovation, problem solving and creativity.

Transformational Leadership is about transforming the performance and future success of a business and as such requires new approaches, new ideas, solutions to problems and innovation. It is no surprise therefore, that these qualities feature heavily in the four components of Transformational Leadership and are actively encouraged and supported in followers by Transformational Leaders.

What does it take to become a Transformational Leader?

To set yourself on a path to become a Transformational Leader, the following guidelines should prove valuable.

  • Create a clear, inspirational and highly appealing vision for followers
  • Make the link between the vision and the strategies to attain it clear
  • Articulate the vision in an inspirational and passionate way (use colourful and emotive language)
  • Consistently demonstrate confidence and belief in the vision
  • Demonstrate with conviction your confidence in your follower’s ability to contribute towards and fulfil the vision
  • Model exemplary behaviours that reflect your total commitment to the vision and organisational values
  • Recognise the success of followers
  • Demonstrate a genuine interest in the needs and feelings of individual followers
  • Challenge followers to be innovative, creative and to find solutions to problems

By embracing the above you will be making a significant contribution to creating an innovative culture where great ideas can flourish and solutions to problems will be found.

Time and discipline – innovations best friends

I remember running a workshop some years ago for a group of engineers. The aim was to develop their ability to generate innovative ideas and concepts when developing solutions for clients.

The workshop was a resounding success and by breaking psychological inertia and introducing a small number of systematic thinking tools and processes, there was a remarkable increase in the numbers of ideas and concepts that they were able to produce.

The participants were wonderfully enthusiastic and highly motivated and the feedback at the end of the workshop reflected the success of the day. I drove home that evening with a smile a smile of satisfaction on my face believing I had made a real difference. That is after all, the one thing above all others that drives me to do what I do.

I also recall the follow up workshop that took place some weeks later to explore how things were going.

The feedback from the initial workshop remained extremely positive and it was clear that the training had hit the mark.

I then asked the participants to share their experiences of using the tools and processes that they had been introduced to. They looked at one another expectantly and then turned to me as their expressions fell blank other than slight signs of awkwardness and embarrassment.

‘I’ve not really had the opportunity’ was one reason put forward for the lack of application of the tools and processes. ‘I’ve just been too busy’ was another.

This was followed by pretty much unanimous agreement that these were the main barriers they had met to successfully implementing the work we had done.

Upon further exploration the truth of the matter was, there had been an abundance of opportunities and lack of time and opportunity had simply been excuses.

It occurred to me then that simply giving people new skills or tools and processes that they wholeheartedly embrace and value is simply not enough (in hindsight this was obvious).

Reasons for the lack of implementation can be attributed to a number of things. Insufficient management support, psychological inertia, lack of motivation being amongst them.

In my mind, these are more often than not also excuses. Contributing factors perhaps but still excuses. After all ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. You can give people opportunities but you can’t make them think’.

If you want to be more innovative, find great solutions and generate great ideas and concepts there are two essential ingredients. Finding or creating time to do it and having the discipline to apply effective thinking tools and processes.

It really is as simple as that.

The value of rephrasing problems

Often when dealing with problems and attempting to identify potential solutions we are either trying to solve the wrong problem (or symptoms of the problem rather than the cause) or are viewing the problem as one dimensional.

The purpose of this brief article is to help us understand the value of rephrasing problems in order to develop a deeper, wider and better quality pool of potential solutions.

By rephrasing problems we are able to shift our view of the problem and change perspective which enables us to find solutions beyond a one dimensional view.

I was recently told a story which illustrates this rather well. It involved the presence of a substantial amount of asbestos in a nuclear power station and its necessary removal to safeguard the health and safety of the engineers working there.

The problem was how to remove the asbestos safely and without releasing any harmful particles into the atmosphere. The location of the asbestos and other environmental and physical factors made this a challenge for which a team of experts were assembled to find a solution.

Weeks went by, and then months as they continued to struggle, until a visitor was invited to take part in one of the sessions aimed at finding a solution.

It wasn’t too long before the visitor interrupted the meeting by asking “are you sure that you’re solving the right problem?” Quizzical eyes peered back and one individual asked what he meant by that.

“Surely, the problem is not about removing the asbestos but how to protect people from its harmful effect” he replied.

This rephrasing of the problem very quickly led to a solution. The asbestos was clad in protective sheeting and remains in that location to this day with the harm eliminated.

Here are another couple of examples of rephrasing a problem:

Problem 1:          I need a hammer to drive this nail in (solution = find a hammer)

Rephrased:         I need to drive this nail in (solutions = find anything that will drive the nail in)

Rephrased:         I need to join these two pieces of wood together (solutions = all the above and more!)

Problem 2:          We need a new tunnel to get cars across the river (solution = dig a tunnel)

Rephrased:         We need to get cars across the river (solutions = any method to get cars  across a river)

Rephrased:         We need to move the river (whoa!)

The rephrasing of the problem in the above examples, would potentially lead to very different solutions.

Do get in touch if you would like to know more.