Archive for the 'Problem solving' Category

More about the Tongs Model

January 07th, 2011 | Category: Problem solving,TRIZ,TRIZ concepts

As promised some time ago, I’d like to share a some more on a powerful yet simple TRIZ tool which I recently talked about at the European TRIZ Association Conference in Bergamo, Italy. The specific topic I presented related to the ‚ÄúTongs‚ÄĚ model, which is primarily intended to help learners new to TRIZ to start to use¬†basic TRIZ concepts and to develop their TRIZ skills. The word ‚ÄúTongs‚ÄĚ is not an acronym but instead refers to the way the model helps the user to get to grips with and manipulate a problem situation quickly and effectively – as an analogy to how Tongs are used to manipulate objects in the physical world. According the OTSM Axiom of a root of problem, fundamentally, any problem situation can be described as a conflict between human desire and objective factors or natural laws. An example of an objective factor or natural law is the law of gravity; our desire to fly like the birds is limited by gravity.

In the Tongs model we start with a statement of where we are now (the Initial Situation or IS) and we detail what the key negative effect of this might be. For example, I might be unhappy about washing the dishes after a family meal because it takes a lot of time. We then state a ‚ÄúMost Desirable Result‚ÄĚ (MDR), that is, what we would wish for if we had a magic wand to wave over the problem situation. In the example of washing the dishes, maybe I wish that after use, the dirt simply disappears! Next we explore the barrier which prevents us from achieving the MDR; in the case of the dirty dishes, there is no means for the dirt to disappear by itself. Next we suggest a partial solution or explanation of how the dishes might be able to clean themselves ‚Äď perhaps there is a removable layer on the dish which can be peeled off, removing the dirt from the dish surface. We can now iterate the model, creating a new IS and MDR and repeat the process, until we get very close to the MDR we have stated. Incidentally a potential solution which appears fairly quickly through this analysis is dishes made from many removable layers. This type of dish is often used in camping.
When used with other tools to break psychological inertia, I’ve found the Tongs model helps TRIZ novices to develop their understanding of their problem rapidly and to improve the quality of the solutions they propose. Why not try it out and let me know how you get on?

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Technology Innovation at Philips Applied Technologies

Last week I visited Philips Applied Technologies in Eindhoven and I was given the inside line on a number of impressive new technology applications.¬†Philips Applied Technologies¬†are¬†well experienced in applying and integrating a wide range of technologies including software, electronics, robotics, precision motion and sensors. They act as a consultancy wing of Philips, helping to broaden the use of Philips technologies and applications for a very broad range of clients in areas as diverse as retail, healthcare, energy and semiconductor manufacture. While there, I had a look around “homelab”, a demonstrator for the home of the future, I saw a number of neat technology applications and I experienced the Philips 3D TV in 42″ LCD format. Watching the new TV, without any special glasses, is a seriously convincing visual and sensory treat – I watched a very realistic 3D film sequence from Journey to the Centre of the Earth and witnessed Pinnochio’s nose grow out of the screen. It works by having an extra lenticular layer in the screen which is designed to interact with the displayed image and special¬†processing chips to send the correct images in real time to your right and left eyes to create the 3D effect. It’s a bit like a super whizzy version of the lenticular display signs you sometimes see which give a moving image or a 3D image as you move your head. To view the screen, you need to position your head so you can’t see any ghosting and then enjoy. Apart from this the only limitation seems to be that the resolution of 2D images suffers so the display is effectively limited to 3D. Initial applications are in digital signage retailing at up to $13,000 for the 42″ version. I think it’s called WOWvx.

Heres a quick video about Philips 3D TV to give you some faint idea of how cool it is.

Other cool things being worked on are lab-on-a-chip devices, already being used to detect high alcohol or drug levels in drivers, a new Optical imaging mammography system, Near Field Comms technology to enable WiFi, low cost noise cancelling headphones, some amazing precise mechatronic systems (for use in future 22nm fab lines) and some clever ways to configure LED lighting systems.

I was really impressed by the capabilities and technologies that Philips Applied Technologies have on offer. I can imagine that when used with strong market and consumer insight, application of the technologies they have on offer could easily result in some true market breakthrough products.

From the Open Innovation perspective, the whole High Tech Campus in Eindhoven has been through something of an opening up process over the last few years and Philips is finding new ways to showcase and connect with customers through initiatives such as “Meet and Match” where technologies are demonstrated and explained and customer needs elaborated.

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Open Innovation ‚Äď a Solution Provider‚Äôs tale

July 22nd, 2008 | Category: IP,Open Innovation,Opinions,Problem solving

A while ago I posted an article about the three leading Open Innovation marketplaces (a.k.a. Ideagoras) but in that post, I didn’t shed¬†much light on what the process felt like from the perspective of a Solution Provider. I’ve now submitted two proposals in answer to RFPs from Nine Sigma and eventually, after quite a bit of initial interest, I have received feedback that neither proposal is suitable for their clients. I’d like to share a bit more about these proposals with you in the hope that my learning experience might be useful if you ever decide to enter the murky and strangely disconnected world of the Solution Provider.

Proposal 1: an automotive transmission lock. I teamed up with an automotive gearbox technology company and we identified a novel transmission lock design which did not seem to be present in the prior art. I prepared a detailed patent document for the transmission lock and I filed the patent with the UK patent office within three days. I filed a patent specifically because of the policy on Nine Sigma around “non-confidential disclosure” of proposals. I prepared the proposal and the outline plan with my contact at the gearbox company and he submitted the proposal to Nine Sigma in early May. In total I put in about 4 days of work and my colleague at the gearbox company did about the same. We thought we had done a good job. Then we waited and we waited and we waited. Eventually, in the second week of July my contact received an email from Nine Sigma saying that the client thought the proposal was good but they didn’t believe that the solution was suitable for them. We didn’t get any more detail on exactly what didn’t work for the client.

Proposal 2: an improved catheter system. I analysed the problem situation using TRIZ and researched the prior art. Based on this work, I identified a conceptual solution which appeared to be novel and I tracked down a company based in Cambridge, UK with the necessary expertise to produce a proof of principle demonstrator. As in the previous proposal, I prepared a detailed patent document for the improved catheter system and filed it on-line with the UK patent office. I prepared a proposal to Nine Sigma and sent it off in early June. This time, I didn’t have to wait so long. I received confirmation from Nine Sigma in the second week of July that, following an initial screening meeting with their client, excitingly, they were interested in my proposal. My excitement soon dissipated, however, as over the next two weeks I received and answered 9 increasingly incomprehensible e-mails asking about various functional aspects of my proposal, questioning if the idea was indeed unique and implying that I hadn’t applied for a patent after all. By the time Nine Sigma said that their client thought the new technology would take too long to develop and so had decided not to proceed, I was actually quite relieved.

So, where has this left me in my burgeoning career as a Solution Provider? Actually, a little more positive than you might have thought. At least I got feedback on my proposals. I’ve spoken to others who have now given up answering RFPs from Nine Sigma because of the lack of feedback. So on my experience, there’s improvement there. In terms of the communication gap which I experienced, now I know what to expect, I’ll be ready for it next time. In fact, I’ve been looking through the list of new RFPs and I’ve already lined up another couple to have a go at. Meanwhile, if I get a good search report on Proposal 2, I think it could well have legs and it may well find its way onto


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Open Innovation – Why you should know what “Ideagora” means

Open Innovation. The holy grail of modern innovative companies. So all you have to do is connect with innovators around the world and, hey presto, all¬†your innovation worries are gone! Of course, in real life it’s not quite that simple, for a start how do you go about connecting with all these innovators in the first place. The trouble with Open Innovation is that it’s open – do you really want to open up all your strategic issues to the world in the hope of gettting a solution? What about IP, how do you handle that? well, there are a number of idea marketplaces (Ideagoras) which¬†help companies get through this process. The top three, in my view, are:

Nine Sigma¬†who source innovative solutions for their clients (Innovation Seekers) by using a global network of up to 1.5m Solution Providers. They cover a broad range of technical disciplines…chemistry, materials, electrical/electronics, packaging, food, formulation, consumer preferences, health/life sciences, renewable energy and more. Interestingly, many large organizations are registered as Solution Providers as well as Innovation Seekers. Nine Sigma posts new, often annonymous¬†Request For Proposal (RFP) documents on it’s website on a weekly basis. The Client typically pays an up-front fee of $15K (2007 prices) per RFP with risk sharing “success commission” based on paying Nine Sigma a percentage of the final contract value. RFPs are sent by e-mail notification each week to registered Solution Providers and Affiliates. Solution Providers are offered a prize for the best solution(s) generally ranging from $5K to $50K. In my experience as a Solution Provider, it can take a very long time (nearly 2 months and counting) to get a response if you submit a proposal. I’ve heard from others that they never received¬†a response.

Nine Sigma has a very rapid rate of growth of their¬†Solution Provider¬†base, primarily through Affiliates. Large client organisations have had some big successes through Nine Sigma and are expanding their agreements, increasing the number of RFPs that they are posting. However, for smaller innovators it’s worth noting that many of the transactions are between large companies with complementary capabilities and strong IP awareness.

Innocentive¬†connects companies, academic institutions, and non-profit organizations (Seekers) with a global network of more than 145,000 of the world’s brightest minds (Solvers) and aims to Become the “Google” of the innovation search. Challenges are posted annonymously normally and solutions have come from more than 30 countries with over 550 postings for innovation challenges since starting, 192 awards to date. Recognition is given to successful solvers on the InnoCentive website and in my view Innocentive is aimed more at the research scientist community than Nine Sigma. InnoCentive is also innovating the way it markets itself e.g. use of Youtube (here¬†is¬†an example of a¬†seeker and solver video). The cash awards for solving challenges are in the range $5,000 to $100,000 (but can be as high as $1m). InnoCentive have so far paid out over $13m in prizes. As with Nine Sigma, there is an initial posting fee which varies according to the type of challenge but is in the range of $6,000 to $15,000. There is also a success fee based on the value of follow-on contract or award value. Innovation Challenges are sent by e-mail to Solvers once a week. Innocentive have experienced extremely rapid growth (45% per month) of solver base, number of challenges and value of awards. I haven’t actually answered any Innocentive Challenges although I have recently seen one that I might have a go at.

With both Nine Sigma and inncentive, as a Solver/Solution Provider, you need to have a look at their contractual terms and conditions. Both sites talk about “Non-confidential disclosure” which they say is mainly intended to prevent the client being compromised by IP. However, as a¬†Solver/Solution Provider you should also think about your rights and if you think you have something that is new (after a quick prior art search) then the best thing to do is protect it by filing a patent. This needn’t be a scary experience. I’ve recently filed 3 patents; it was cheap and once you get the style of the lingo it is relatively straightforward. More on this in another post.¬†

Which brings me on to the third Ideagora:¬†is a bit different as it is focused around buying and selling IP. They exist “to help technology companies realise value from their Intellectual Property”. claims to operate the¬†largest Global online marketplace for technology transfer. The internet presence is said to be a unique resource to facilitate deals¬†with 120,000+ registered users, 40,000 companies, Network of 12,000+ smaller companies ($10-500m). also says it holds 500,000 data points of known solutions and specialises in “In-licensing ” and “out-licensing” IP for large companies and SMEs.¬† closed 20+ deals last year and completed transactions for 10 F500 companies in Q4 2007 with 71% of the deals¬†between companies from different industries.¬† provides consulting support throughout a project and stays engaged in the deal-making process and claims that it is very well placed to help companies acquire technology because it also helps clients exploit technology.

Typical client rates (2007 rates):
Membership fee $4,000 to $30,000
Consulting service fee $30,000 to $40,000
Success fee: % of value to the deal but capped

There is some interesting stuff on and it is certainly worth a look if you’re cruising fro technology to answer your specific problem. I’ve¬†already found useful technologies in here for my clients. It might be a good place to post your technology IP, if you can afford it.

So, what do I think about these new marketplaces? Well I reckon that they do present an important new resource for technology sourcing for Innovation Managers and¬†R&D¬†Directors, and as they have got bigger they are beginning to approach the critical mass necessary to deliver meaningful innovation. For innovation minded companies, they can no longer be ignored. However, don’t expect¬†them to solve every problem you have – one statistic to bear in mind is that on average (Nine Sigma and Innocentive figures) they only manage to get suitable answers to 40% of their postings.¬†Here is a downloadable powerpoint¬†presentation:¬†the-ideagora-an-emerging-innovation-marketplace


Developments in tactile feedback technology

June 24th, 2008 | Category: Problem solving,Targeted technology

If you have tried to text someone on your iPhone you will know that the lack of tactile feedback makes it harder to use, even though the whizzy touch screen looks nice. You make more mistakes and you type more slowly than with a normal phone. The need to create tactile feedback was also highlighted for larger screens in my recent post on new display technologies. Now Stephen Brewster and colleagues at the University of Glasgow in the UK say they can banish these problems by using actuators like those that make cellphones vibrate to replicate the feel of a keyboard.

To create the required feedback¬†his group strung together combinations of different vibrations. A single pulse 30 milliseconds long gives the feeling of a button being clicked, while sliding a finger from one button to another prompts a half-second long buzz, providing a “rough” feeling that tells the user they’ve strayed to another key. Sliding the finger across a button causes the buzz to be ramped up and then down, giving the feel of a round button.

The team found that users’ typing speed and accuracy were significantly closer to results they achieved using a real keyboard, compared with when the haptics were disabled.

This technology represents an efficient use of resources, in that the vibrator is already present in the phone, while significantly enhancing the experience for the phone user.

If a similar technology to this could be combined with the display technology I discussed in my earlier post on new display technologies, there could be significant potential for even more engaging consumer experiences at point of sale or brand interaction in future.

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UK Council bans brainstorming – for the wrong reason

June 22nd, 2008 | Category: Innovation tools,Opinions,Problem solving,TRIZ tools

I saw this article in the Times today. It appears that Tunbridge Wells borough council in Kent has banned the term “brainstorm” and replaced it with the term “thought shower” because of concerns that the term might be offensive to people with epilepsy. Amid all the controversy about political correctness etc. a bigger question occurred to me – why do brainstorming/thought showering at all any more? The whole process of randomly generating ideas in the hope that one of them will provide the ideal solution seems to me to be little more than guesswork or gambling. I don’t know if it’s just me but I used to get a real sinking feeling when faced with sheets of flipcharts full of ideas still needing to be teased through. These days there are far better ways of targeting the required solution and approaching the problem situation systematically. In this blog I’m aiming to¬†show you powerful¬†thinking tools and processes which can help you to ditch the guesswork and identify close to ideal solutions every time.

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Effective Problem definition – how to get more than half way to solving your problem

June 21st, 2008 | Category: Problem solving

From time to time in any innovation activity, you will face problems which need to be solved and solved quickly so that you can progress towards your objective. The way you go about solving a problem can make a major difference to the outcome you get.¬†It can mean the difference between a quick clean, elegant and maybe even downright exciting solution or the loss of weeks of valuable time and an unhappy compromise nobody really wants. When I work in innovative companies, helping people to solve¬†long standing, “impossible”¬†problems, I often see people getting caught out at the first step. I see teams or individuals who haven’t asked the right questions at the start of their problem solving process. That’s right, hard to believe as it may seem, many times, even before people have properly defined their problem, they are off and trying to solve it. There are many reasons for this puzzling behaviour, here are a selected few:

“I’m the expert so I ought to know all about the problem”

“I’m under serious time pressure, so I need to get on and solve the problem right now!”

“from my experience of similar situations, this worked last time”

Anyway, here is a simple process which I have used and I’ve found can really help:

Lets explain each of these steps in turn:

Step 1: Create an initial problem statement. Now this may sound really silly, but write the problem down. Committing your problem to paper can really help clarify exactly what you and maybe your team are setting out to solve. I’ve seen teams who have been working on a problem for weeks or months get into serious debate at this first stage about which problem they are really trying to solve. Writing the problem down gets everyone aligned about the real problem to resolve. It helps to start to write the problem down in the form “I want to …..¬†“ to get clearer on the desired solution you want to achieve. It is also really important that you write the problem down without using technical terms and jargon. Your problem should be able to pass the My Mum test, that is if you read it to your mother, she would understand it. There are two reasons for this, first, it makes the problem easier to explain to anyone, which helps if you want to get external input to your solution and second, it starts to take out terminology which is associated with the way you see the problem now, in TRIZ terms, your psychological inertia. This immediately helps you to unblock your thinking, which is the first step towards a new way of looking at your problem situation.

Step 2: Check you’re solving the problem at the right level. What do I mean by this? Lets take an example, imagine you are work for an airline and you start with problem: I want to design a more comfortable airline seat. Rather than just look at this specific problem, it can be really helpful to spend a bit of effort to check the context for the problem and consider possible sub-areas which might yield the best results. A simple tool to help with this is why-how laddering. To move up the ladder and discover context first ask why? This will quickly get you to top level business needs for your airline. Then ask how? to expose alternative options to answer the top level needs and even drill into your problem area:

Step 3: Refine the problem situation. This step helps you to identify the real tension or contradiction you are trying to resolve, in other words the gap you need to jump from where you are now (reality) to where you want to get to (expectation). Use the format I want to…but…. to frame your probelm situation.

¬†So, for the airplane seat example your problem might be: “I want to make a more comfortable airline seat but the current space available is too small for tall passengers.”

Step 4: Scope the problem. In this step, you define what can and what can’t be changed according to the conditions of your problem situation. Sometimes it is good to list the different components you have in the problem situation and their associated parameters and then go through each and decide which ones can be changed and which ones must stay as they are. You can use various scoping tools to help here: a simple table with¬†can change/can’t change columns, a scope box (what is inside can change) or, a personal favorite,¬†a chalk man of scope – a dead body outline laid out on the floor to help¬†your problem solving team decide what is in and out of scope.¬†

At this point you have a much clearer understanding of your problem situation and you can then proceed to use other problem analysis tools including TRIZ tools to analyse and solve your problem. More on steps forward from this in future posts. Download version: effective-problem-definition1


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