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Find the Zones of Conflict - Identify the Problem

By Ellen Domb

The methods of teachingthe Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) developed byGenrich Altshuller and his colleagues, emphasize the importance of solving the “right” problem rather than applying creative and analytic energy into curing only the symptoms of the problem. TRIZ methods – software-assisted, classical or adjusted by a specific instructor’s style – focus on finding the problem drivers and either removing them or modifying them to prevent the problem from recurring.

Many of the techniques of ARIZ (Algorithm for Inventive Problem Solving) evolved to help problem solvers find the right problem.Similarly, Juran Deming and other founders of the quality improvement movement were introducing the idea that problem solvers must search for the “root cause” of a quality deficiency and not consider the problem solved if they only treated the symptoms.

Zones of Conflict

There are two zones of conflict in a problem: spatial and temporal, sometimes called the zoneand time of operation. Practitioners need to know exactly where and when the conflict arises. Conflict is basic to the definition of a technical problem in TRIZ. Identifying the zones of conflict can help distinguish what kind of conflict the problem has, which then leads to an appropriate solution.

TRIZ includes both physical and technical conflicts. (Because TRIZ was initially developed in the former Soviet Union, some of the translations are not precise to the English language. When discussing the physical and technical conflicts practitioners do not mean that the “technical” contradictions or conflicts are more technical than physical conflicts.)

  • Physical conflicts or contradictions:opposite properties are required of a system. The airplane is a classical example – it must be streamlined to go fast, but it must have protrusions (a landing gear) to maneuver. McDonald’s coffee must be hot to be enjoyable to drink, but must be cool enough to not burn people who spill. Physical conflicts are resolved using separation principles, resources and phase transitions. Internal resources are the materials, energy sources, etc., found inside the system under consideration. External resources are found outside. Ideal solutions use internal resources, but short-term practical solutions may use any kind.
  • Technical conflicts or contradictions: a characteristic of a system gets better, but another gets worse. These are the typical trade-offs of engineering design. In construction, for example, the strength of a beam gets better, but the weight gets worse. To send signals from a satellite, the bandwidth must be increased which is good, but it requires an increase in the power which is bad, because it is expensive to carry extra power generation capability on a satellite. Technical conflicts are either converted into physical contradictions for resolution, or are resolved directly using the 40 principles of problem solving.

Finding the Zones of Conflict

An easy way to get started on analysis of the zones of conflict is to answer the six questions: who, what, when, where, why andhow? These questions are frequently called the 5Ws and an H. Expanding the questions frequently helps define the zones of conflict and the explicit definition of the contradiction:

  1. Who has the problem?
  2. What does the problem seem to be? What are the resources?
  3. When does the problem occur? All the time? Under certain circumstances?
  4. Where does the problem occur?
  5. Why does the problem occur? (“Ask why 5 times” was W. Edwards Deming’s advice to those seeking to understand the root cause of a problem.)
  6. How does the problem occur?

TRIZ Teaching Problem

The acid bath is a classical teaching problem in TRIZ. In this problem, researchers want to test how acid etches various metal samples. But, the acid also etches the lining of the container the samples are placed in, and the coatings on the walls of the container must be frequently replaced.

Figure 1: Initial Sample Test
  1. Who has the problem? The metallurgy researchers have the problem.
  2. What does the problem seem to be? Low productivity. Researchers frequently have to pause to replace the coatings. The primary function of the system is to have acid etch the samples, and instead it is etching the lining of the container. This produces another problem – contamination of the acid with the byproducts of the reaction with the lining. What are the resources? Internal to the problem: acid, samples, container, lining. Outside the problem: anything.
  3. When does the problem occur; all the time or under certain circumstances? In this situation the problem occurs any time acid is in the container.
  4. Where does the problem occur? The problem occurs at the walls of the container – at the surface where the acid contacts the lining of the container.
  5. Why does the problem occur? Why do we have a container? The container is needed to confine the acid. Why do we need the acid? To expose it to the samples. Why do we expose it to the samples? To measure the interaction between the sample and the acid. So, we need the measurement –not the container.
  6. How does the problem occur? Acid etches the lining of the container. (In some cases, it might be important to delve into detail about the chemical mechanism involved in the etching.)

By the time the 5Ws and H are answered, the contradiction is clear. It is a physical contradiction:

  • The container should be present to confine the acid.
  • The container should be absent to speed up the work.

The resources internal to the problem are the container, the lining, the acid and the samples. The problem is resolved by forming the container from the sample material. This simplifies the problem – no container, no linings – and increases the productivity and the accuracy of the measurement work.

Figure 2: Revised Test Using the Sample as the Container

Note that if the problem solvers rushed ahead without completing the questions, they might have spent all their time trying to find a more efficient way to re-coat the inside of the container, or a more resistant material, rather than finding a solution that eliminates the problem.


Identifying the zones of conflict before applying the tools of TRIZ helps practitioners understand the conflict better, simplifies problem solving and can lead directly to a solution.

About the Author:

Ellen Domb is the founder and principal TRIZ consultant of the PQR Group. She is also the founding editor of The TRIZ Journal and a commentator for Real Innovation. Contact Ellen Domb at ellendomb (at) or visit