Case Study: Applying Triz in a non-technical setting for a fuel-cell start-up
By Jean-Francois Denault
TRIZ is a systematic tool used to generate creativity and solve technical problems, but there is little litterature of its use in non-technical situations. This brings up the question: How can TRIZ be used to generate creativty and solve a non-technical problem?
The objective of this experimentwas to use TRIZ in a non-technical setting. As such, the article is very exploratory in nature. Working with a private company, we identified and defined a non-technical problem, and experimented with TRIZ to generate creativity in an attempt to solve the problem. KEYWORDS: Creativity, Brainstorming, TRIZ, Problem Solving
2.1TRIZ in a non-technical setting
TRIZ is a Systematic Tool which is used to generate creativity to solve technical problems. Since it is a powerful tool to generate ideas, there is an incentive to use it in a non-technical setting as a creative thinking tool. For example, Zlotin believed that TRIZ concepts, such as ideality, contradiction and the systems approach are fully applicable to non-technical problems, and that analytical tools and psychological operators are directly applicable to accommodate non-technical applications (Zlotin, 2000).
Brainstorming (BS) is the “standard” method for creative thinking. However, when comparing BS to TRIZ, BS’s random nature becomes apparent. Where as BS can be described as “a way of looking for an idea accidently”, TRIZ is “equipped with technique, process, and knowledge database as a comprehensive methodology of a creative solution of a problem” (Nakamura, 2001). This makes TRIZ an attractive tool to explore.
If some other authors have explored TRIZ in a non-technical perspective, they have mostly done so from a theoretical perspective. For example, Mann (1999) and Terninko (2001) did excellent work in developing examples of applications of Triz principles in non-technical settings. With this article, I wish to add to existing literature by developing a case study solving a tangible problem.
2.2 Orange Power
Orange Power is a hydrogen fuel cell start-up company located in Menomonie, Wisconsin. It is a spin-off company based on the results of the research and development conducted at University of Wisconsin-Stout. Its patent (US20120070754: Fuel Cell with Rapid Pressure Balancing) describes fuel cell technology which is inexpensive to mass produce, and has the potential to disrupt the market.
The current fuel cell industry is growing rapidly: the number of patents is growing steadily, and more companies are reaching the commercializing stage. Nonetheless, the cost per KW remains high, and the DOE estimates that a production cost of 30$ / KW is needed for serious commercial applications. As the market for companies focusing on the automobile market saturates, Orange Power has specifically chosen to target non-traditional markets (utility and neighborhood vehicles), rather than focusing on the automobile market. While the company has a working prototype, its next step is commercialization. As such, it has been trying to establish partnerships to raise funds and begin mass production.
I conducted three interviews with the CEO of Orange Power. The first one was to identify and define the problem, the second to generate ideas with pre-selected applicable inventive principles and the third to validate and get impressions on the process. Between the first and second interview, I used existing documentation to shortlist the most pertinent inventive principles to generate ideas.
3.1 Defining the problem
The CEO has been showcasing Orange’s fuel cell innovation to potential investors and partners for the last few years. Even though the technology has been demonstrated as functional (being past the prototype stage), reception to the technology has been lukewarm. The founders believe that there are multiple biases in their audience.
First, some potential partners mentioned that fuel cells use should be focused on automobiles, forgoing secondary uses. As such, the proposal of using the technology in novel segments has made it difficult to achieve credibility with investors. Also, the cost structure for mass manufacturing is so low that the audience has been unwilling to believe the technology is realistic, as it does not fit their perception of a realistic technology.
As such, the problem (from the perspective of Orange Power) is that the current product positioning (low cost, niche markets) does not fit potential partners’ perception of the current technology (high cost, mass market).
4. Results - Using the 40 inventive principles to generate ideas
As part of the creative process, I reviewed each of the 40 inventive principles and identified the ones that could be applied to our defined problem. The CEO and I then used each short-listed principle as a guideline for idea generation.
4.1Principle #2: Taking out
In this principle, one tries to separate an interfering component of the object. From our perspective, if the object is the presentation, is there something in the presentation we can remove? Is there something during the presentation that makes people cringe? Raise their hand? Object?
To this, the CEO mentioned that slides highlighting the cost of existing fuel cells emphasized the cost gap between the high cost of current high-end fuel cells, and the company’s fuel cell. This led us to hypothesize that this gap contributed to the perception problem identified earlier. As such, the way the product is presented could be shocking the audience, as there is a gap between what they expect to hear, and what they are hearing. Using a decision matrix, with “Investor Expectations” and “Product Attributes” might help to prioritize which elements should be showcased, and which elements interfere with investor evaluation.
An alternative is to completely remove slides mentioning costs to attenuate shock, but one of the leading methods in sales today emphasizes the need to "Reframe" the problem and to get the potential customer to think about the situation differently. The Challenger Sales method advocates using tension productively, rather than dissipating it (Dixon, 2011).As such, the CEO chose to keep cost related slides.
4.2Principle #9: Preliminary Anti-Action
We explored the principle of creating stress beforehand to oppose future undesirable stresses. Our discussion started with the hypothesis that the CEO could say something before the presentation that would create stress in the audience. One proposition was that he could start the presentation with something to the effect that fuel cells typically cost X$ to produce, where X$ is a huge number. But as we examined earlier, investors would not be shocked, as they expected this big number, and it was the absence of this big number in the product that caused stress. Further, as discussed previously, using tension in the presentation to Orange Power's advantage has merit.
We discussed another stress, the one where the CEO is not exploring markets other than cars. As his presentation was structured, it would discuss the technology, the cost, and then the potential markets, forgoing the automobile market. So our discussion focused on causing stress upfront, like putting a title in the first slide that would say “Fuel Cells for Boats”, “shocking” the audience upfront. As such, the presentation would be built upon the premise that this product is not for cars, rather than surprising the audience during the presentation. The CEO seemed favourable to this idea. The process is akin to the Challenger Sales model, where the seller is encourage to teach and tailor his presentation to customers.
Another item we explored was including harmful information in the presentation to make the product more “realistic”. As such, we discussed introducing the fear of competition. The CEO mentioned he always took the approach of positioning himself as a unique product (low cost, high performance) in the fuel cell market. But, by taking the alternative approach of being a market leader (with a functional prototype) in a developing market, we hypothesized that this could create the fear of competition and enhance investor eagerness. For example, many competitors in the fuel cell space are looking at 2015 as the time to market, so having a product now ready for market commercialization could enhance interest.
4.3Principle #13: The other way round
In this principle, we explored inverting the action used to solve the problem. The first thing we explored is inverting the presentation dynamic. Whereas the traditional model is that the inventor makes a presentation and the audience responds, I suggested we go the other way around: how about after the presentation, the CEO asks the audience to do a “presentation” on what they expected? Of course, it can be risky, putting the audience “on the spot”, but the CEO hypothesized that this could also give ownership to the audience. As such, building a specific document for a potential partner (either slides or documents) specifically drafted to engage an interested minded person could give them ownership. A lot of work remains on the how, but the idea generated a lot of excitement for the CEO.
Another idea we explored is that rather than benchmarking against the best, how about benchmarking against the worst? Rather than comparing to the high-end fuel cells, how about comparing to the cheapest models? As such, the company would change the message from “We are cheaper than others, but also better” to “We are a little more expensive than some others, but so much better”. Therefore, the product is selling upwards on quality, rather than downwards on price. Also, it is human nature to look at a cheaper product and expect less quality, so inverting the message would play favourably to the audience.
4.4Principle #15: Dynamics
During this discussion, we focused on how we could allow the external environment to change conditions. This was potentially one of the controversial elements of our discussion since it focused on something the CEO held dear, the niche markets. While most of the market is focusing on the automobile market, the client mentioned that he favoured smaller niche markets, due to saturation issues, and his perception of more opportunities.
We started the discussion by exploring the most important external pressure being applied to the company: focusing on the automobile market. The question I posed was: Can Orange Power focus on cars with its technology? The short answer was that it could (from a technology perspective), but there were multiple reasons they had shied away from this market. These included oversaturation, presence of big players and massive investment requirements, to name a few. Changing to this market would also shift the investor focus from low-cap angel investors to high-end Venture Capitalist.
As such, our conversation shifted to making the automobile market a long term objective rather than making it the only objective. Orange’s approach could change from the company ignores this market, to one where it makes it a long-term strategic market. The company strategic positioning could change from “Focusing on secondary markets exclusively” to “Focusing on secondary markets as a way to generate funds and credibility towards the large market, the car market”.
Another option we explored is can we overdesign the product? For example a product which would work best in the marine sector? The CEO hesitated, saying that while Orange was targeting multiple small niches, they were all feasible when taken as a single market with a single design. Targeting each individually with overdesigned products would dilute cost saving related to mass production. As such, he did not believe overdesigning his product, even as different marketing brands, was feasible.
4.5Principle #35: Parameter changes
Sometimes it is advantageous to change concentration or consistency to solve a problem. From this perspective, we explored multiple angles: could the company build weaker batteries to align to perceptions from the audience? Perhaps creating different product categories, or different brandings? The contradiction is that the product is inexpensive when it is expected to be expensive... can we be less inexpensive?
From a technical perspective, it is possible to change power output to something lower, by changing components. But, during his presentations, the CEO had noticed that most people were interested in a product with more power, not less. So, the idea shifted to building different brands, including some with more power, which, while being more powerful, would match the price of existing products. Hence, rather than saying “We have the same power than competitors, at a lower price”, the message would become “At the same price than the competitor, we have more power”. As such, the company would close the divide that investors have, and get more power for the same “expected” price.
Using TRIZ in a non-technical setting enabled us to generate many potential solutions. While our participant had hesitations on some of the specific solutions, he was impressed by the quality and quantity of solutions we generated on a problem he thought was thoroughly explored.
Nonetheless, TRIZ is, like other Quality Analysis methods, heavily structured, especially when compared to methods like brainstorming. Hence, it is advisable to explain the TRIZ methodology in detail to participants, and the necessity of constraints. As most participants are used to “free thinking methods” like brainstorming and mind-mapping, there is an adaptation period when using more structured Quality Analysis methodologies, including TRIZ. In our case, our participant was an engineer who worked well in structured process. As such, he admitted he enjoyed working in this type of environment
On my end, I found there was a heavy subjective component when selecting applicable principles for a non-technical problem. This might translate in less structure than one could expect when using TRIZ in a technical setting, but by keeping to the TRIZ framework, we were able to generate robust collaboration, that pushed the conversation further than the usual easy solutions. In our case study, there are multiple solutions we would have never discussed, if we had not been working with TRIZ.
Overall, the participants and I were satisfied with the discussion process. As we concluded the conversation, the CEO elaborated on which solutions he was going to apply on the short term, validating the practicality of the solutions.
I believe that restriction breeds creativity, and the TRIZ framework can certainly contribute to the creative process, even in a non-technical environment. As such, we both believed the topic was worthy of further exploration.
The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of the CEO of Orange Power, Professor Kenneth Smith, and thank him, for his time, feedback and comments to this article.
7. About the Author
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