Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Defining CTS & the System Operator

| On 04, Aug 2008

By Ellen Domb and Joe A. Miller


Beginners frequently encounter one barrier to successful TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving)– to be successful they must understand both the problem they are dealing with and TRIZ. But they frequently lack the patience to learn TRIZ in enough detail to analyze and formulate the problem; or, their organization wants to see results from a “pilot project” before investing in necessary training. Introducing TRIZ into corporate environments requires resolving the contradiction that they want comprehensive understanding and sophisticated problem solving without spending time learning either of them.

Building on the method of using the beginner’s version of the complete technical system, adding the system operator and ideality creates a powerful, fast tool set providing beginners enough success so they can progress to more comprehensive uses of TRIZ.

To illustrate the expansion and use of this method the article focuses on a well-known business system case study of quality improvement for customer service call-center operations. This example demonstrates the flexibility and general applicability of the method. This work is not intended to dilute or diminish TRIZ. It is intended to help beginners get a fast start, so the benefits of their early projects can pay for the time, training and work needed for more extensive TRIZ applications later.


Dual dilemmas are faced by many students who take part in introductory classes. The students are frequently experienced and technically trained individuals responsible for activities as diverse as product design, manufacturing, service design and provision, quality, legal and general management.

  1. Their first dilemma is to maintain and expand mastery of their areas of expertise, and their general business processes, without taking significant time away from their jobs.
  2. The second dilemma occurs when the student attend a TRIZ class – as individuals or part of a company group. Frequently the students bring a workplace problem situation they hope will be addressed in the class. Expectations range from skepticism to wild optimism about the power of this new approach. Beginning students are always concerned about how much time will be required to learn, use and get results from TRIZ.

Beginners to TRIZ need structure – a methodology to follow while they absorb a new language, new concepts and even a new worldview. Beginners also need success in applying TRIZ to keep them interested and convince their companies that it is worthwhile.

Figure 1: The Beginner’s Dilemma with Linked

Assuming competency is necessary and desired for both their jobs and TRIZ training, TRIZ will generally only be an adjunct to the person’s job. Few beginners intend to make TRIZ a career. They are simply looking for ways to enhance performance. Instruction and exercisesshould bestructured to illustrate the adaptability and flexibility of TRIZ to their own discipline.

It is fortunate many powerful elements and tools of TRIZ can be easily used and, if properly introduced, can lead to early results. TRIZ beginners frequently use simple TRIZ tools to clearly describe their problem and explain it to fellow workers. Further, if clear and re-enforcing relations and connections between these tools can be seen and utilized, with direct applicability to their previously assumed “unique” problem, situation, business and/or technology, a sense of structure, purpose and ease of use supports the beginner’s applications. A student learning about TRIZ also usually learns something about his own issue, business, technology or science.

Function analysis is one of the most powerful tools from the beginning student perspective – whether for addressing inadequate system function, system simplification or identifying problem solving resources within a system. When combined with structural elements of TRIZ – the system operator, the complete technical system, and with ideality to provide direction, students have a powerful and immediately useful tool set.


The Complete Technical System

The complete technical system (CTS) is easy for beginners to understand, but instructors need to know beginner’s beginner’s background and experience level. It is important not to confuse beginners with the competing vocabularies used in TRIZ: the term complete “technical” system is used in this article instead of complete “technological” system because many of the systems students encounter do not involve technology, and the authors anticipate that in the future TRIZ practitioners will use the term “complete system” since TRIZ is not limited to technological applications. The elements of the CTS are identified in Table 1. Other authors use terms like the “engine” for the energy source and the “working medium” for the tool.

Table 1: Complete Technical System Table
ElementDescriptionFunction 1:The hammer moves the nail.Function 2: The instructor educates the student.
ToolPerforms the function on the objectHammerInstructor
EnergyMakes it possible for the tool to do workHuman muscle powerHuman
TransmissionDelivers the energy to the toolHand gripping handleVoice
Guidance and controlAdjusts and improves the function (active) or enables the function (passive)Human eye/hand/brainQuestions, answers, and observation of student behavior
ObjectThe thing that changes as a result of the functionNailStudent

Most students understand the hammer/nail system, but those dealing with problems in management, information technology and business operations benefit from an explicit, easy example like the lecture, to apply to their situations in which information is transferred, transformed and transferred again.

Combining CTS and the System Operator

Combining the CTS with the system operator can help students formulate the problem to be solved, as shown in Figure 2.1 Students with backgrounds in many fields grasp the concept of the system operator easily, but vocabulary can be a problem. An instructor whose personal background is in engineering or manufacturing should be cautious when teaching students with a business or service background. Six Sigma training systems frequently distinguish between “transaction” and “manufacturing/operations” students, but this distinction is inadequate, since many transaction problems involve structured information transfer and other technological systems.

An experience with a banking group is illustrative: the people who designed customer service centers and information systems used the language common in engineering, and had an easy grasp of the relationship between sub-systems, systems and super-systems, but the people who dealt with product and service development, most of whom came from either marketing or finance/accounting backgrounds, did not. After the concept was explained using stories about situations analogous to theirs (cars, car dealerships, car production system and child, family, community) they had no difficulty using the system operator.

Figure 2: Combining the CTS and the System Operator

Another easy mistake is to present the system operator as a simple, two-dimensional 3×3 matrix. Choosing which sub-system to put in the diagram can be a challenge to the beginner. Experienced TRIZ practitioners usually do a function analysis or su-field analysis before the system operator, and choose the elements causing harmful functions for elimination, or useful but inadequate functions for enhancement. An image like that in Figure 3 can become a mental model for the choices made when one draws the simple system operator matrix.2 Everyday examples such as the soggy pizza delivery are an effective way to teach this system.6Considering the super-system at the bakery level and delivery vehicle level (truck or bicycle, depending on geography) and then considering the entirely different problem super-system the family’s includes only the family’s eating environment is an easy memorable lesson for applying the system operator to real business problems.

Figure 3: System,Sub-system and
Super-system Relationships

There are many choices on every level. Students usually learn thisbest by examples from their own discipline or from daily life.

The illustration of the system inside the super-system, comprised of multiple sub-systems helps TRIZ beginners understand that the use of the 9-windows representation of the system operator requires choosing which sub- andsuper-system will be considered. The choice of a sub-system as the one causing the most problems for the system is usually easy in a business system. The choice of the super-system is somewhat subtler, since it requires recognizing a non-linear relationship – one system can participate in multiple super-systems. The automobile is a daily life example:

  • It is part of the super-system of transportation.
  • It is part of the super-system of automobile sales and services.
  • It is part of the super-family’s system of a family’s financial assets.

Writing a function and identifying the elements of the complete technical system in each of the nine boxes of the system operator is helpful to beginners trying to understand the relationships among systems, sub- and super-systems. Showing that the function at one level provides a service to the next level, and that the objects are the linkages between levels enables beginners to develop models in their own terms.

The example below shows how the combination of the CTS and the system operator can help beginners make many of the decisions combined in the phrase: “Select the problem to be solved.” Students are then able to populate a system operator template as shown in figure 4.

Figure 4: A System Operator Template with Significant Questions at
the Row and Column Interfaces

Examples like this help teach beginners to develop a systematic way of using the CTS and the system operator. When populating the system operator grid, ask the ideality question at the interface between each box in the “future” column and its adjacent box in the “present” column, and between higher and lower system level boxes: “What will happen to the ideality of the system if we make this change?”

Practitioners should ask this question both before and after asking the CTS questions for each box:

  • What are the elements of the CTS?
  • If any of those elements is absent or weak, will fixing that situation resolve the problem?
  • How do the object and the function that modifies that object link this box to the surrounding boxes?
  • Are there conflicts between the definitions of “improvement” by customers, employees, management and other stakeholders? This question can reveal strategy-level contradictions, which may need to be resolved before proceeding with problem solving.

In some cases, it is useful to add the question:

  • What are the constraints on the changes that can be made at this level of the system?

This enhances creativity – by listing the constraints, and agreeing to apply them after the work is done, people are free to examine all aspects of the problem. If they do not list and discuss the constraints but remain aware of them, cynicism about the creative process develops.

Returning to the example of the hammer and nail, at one level the hammer is the tool and the nail is the object. But at the next level, the nail is the tool and the roofing shingle is the object (nail attaches shingle to the structure). And at the next level the roof, consisting of many shingles, is the tool and the house is the object (roof protects house from the environment). This exercise illustrates that in most situations, there are options in the definition of the system and super-system (the roof also controls the temperature of the house and keeps out insects, etc.). The choice of which option to explore is a preliminary step in deciding what problems to solve, and should not be treated casually. Expansion of the system operator diagram shown in Figure 5 may help students understand there is not one simple set of nine windows.

Figure5: Expanding the System Operator
DiagramMakes Choices More Explicit

Call Center Case Study

This case study was conducted by TRIZ beginners at a telephone call center for credit card services for a major financial institution. It started as a Six Sigma customer satisfaction improvement project for the call center operations. Early data analysis showed the call center had classic Six Sigma problems, that could be solved with standard Six Sigma methods, and some non-standard problems that were good candidates for TRIZ, since the project team agreed they wanted innovative solutions. Billing problems on individual items were considered “standard” problems, solvable by conventional Six Sigma means. The TRIZ team tackled problems customers had understanding the features of complex system offerings – product insurance, service guarantees, etc.

The challenges of applying the CTS model and the system operator model enhanced the creativity of the solutions. Using CTS to view the core process of the call center, where a service technician works with a customer to answer a question, revealed an immediate opportunity for improvement when viewed from either of two vantages:

View 1:

  • Tool: technician
  • Object: customer
  • Energy source: technician’s databases technicians
  • Energy transmission: telephone system
  • Guidance and control: the technician did not have a way to verify whether the customer understood the solutions, and how to implement them.

View 2:

  • Tool: customer
  • Object: technician
  • Energy source: customer’s customer
  • Energy transmission: telephone system
  • Guidance and control: the customer and the technician were both unable to be sure the question was understood. This wasted time and led to customer dissatisfaction and employee frustration.

Eventually, the development of the guidance and control system (G&C) became a preventive action at the sub-system level for this problem. Table 2 shows this development and several other student-initiated insights at other levels. These students liberated themselves from the conventional metrics of call center success (time to answer a call, percent correct answers on first try, etc.) and addressed the ideality of the process from the customer point of view – the best call is one that does not have to be made, because the customer is already happy.

Table 2: TheSystem Operator Diagram for the Call Center Case Study
Past (Preventive)PresentFuture (Corrective)
ComponentAudit data creation systemData items in the databases and data not in the databases (customer information)Correct bad data. Correct missing data.
Sub-systemCreate a list of questions (use quality function deployment (QFD) and failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA) to create the list) to assure customer understanding during the call.Technician support system: databases, information,frequently asked questions’index, expert support system, billing system data, policy manualsAsk questions after each part of the answer, to be sure the customer understands, before proceeding to more complex items.
SystemTrain technicians to recognize the questions when asked in a variety of formats.Technician answers customer questions about credit card system.Send follow-up letter or e-mail repeating the instructions given by phone.
Super-systemMake products easier to understand so that customers do not have to call with questions.Credit card systemGather data on FAQs for system improvement.
Super-super-systemSeparate sophisticated services from the credit card product.Gather customer needs data for all financial services products.Financial services system

Another question beginners understand and welcome deals with the issue known in ARIZ as the mini-vs. the maxi-problem – choosing to solve the problem using the technologies and systems embedded in the problem, or permitting the transition to a new system. In the call center, new technologies are always the source of contradictions, since they increase automation but require training, development, acquisition of customer viewpoint information, etc. The choice of the mini-problem – staying with a legacy system and making small patches to deal with problems –or a maxi-problem at any of several levels involves economic issues including the cost of system modifications, re-training employees as well as the impact on users and employee morale.

Summary and Conclusion

Students quickly grasp the structure and utility of simple function analysis, the complete technical system, the systems operator and their combinations. The call center example illustrated the approach for using CTS templates to populate a system operator diagram. It also illustrates the utility of this approach for identifying trade-offs that arise from assumptions. Carefully defining the present system level CTS, and then using the CTS as a template to complete sub-system and super-system in the past and future provides a clear articulation of assumptions at all levels. Challenging those assumptions, especially those that limit system performance, simplification or improvement may directly reveal contradictions. Statements of ideal final results for each window of the model, or a simple application of the ideality equation, may help reveal contradictions. Even beginners can address those contradictions as technical contradictions with the 40 principles or as physical contradictions using the separation principles.

The complete technical system model, simple function analysis and the system operator/nine windows model provide structural concepts that help beginners apply TRIZ and achieve success in problem solving, improvement initiatives and innovation in their work. These tools can lead to early successes student’s the students’ own context and can directly reduce the dual dilemmas of expanding their capability in their own discipline and becoming TRIZ practitioners – both without excessive time.


  1. Miller J., Domb E., “Applying the Law of the Completeness of a Technological System to Formulate a Problem,” Proceedings of the TRIZ Future 6th World Conference, October 9-11, 2006, Kortrijk, Belgium and First Iberoamerican Congress on Technical Innovation, Pueblo, Mexico, September 2006.
  2. Richmond B., “An Introduction to Systems Thinking,” High Performance Systems, Inc., Hanover, New Hampshire, 2001.
  3. Computer Security Conference, 2007.
  4. Stamey J., Domb E., “Information Security Requirements Analysis with Nine Windows,” Proceedings of the Computer Security Conference, South Carolina, April 12 – 13, 2007.
  5. Domb, E., Miller, J. “The Complete Technical System Generates Problem Definitions.” Presented at the 2nd Congreso Iberoamericano de Innovación Tecnológica, Monterrey, N.L. October 30 – November 1, 2007 and at the European TRIZ Association-TRIZ Futures 2007, Frankfurt, Germany, November 6 – 8, 2007. A longer version was published in The TRIZ Journal,December 2007.
  6. Czerepinski, R., Miller, J. and Domb, E. “Beginner TRIZ Teaching Technique: Soggy Pizza Case Study for the System Operator.” The TRIZ Journal,March 2008.

Note: This paper was originally presented at The Altshuller Institute’s TRIZCON2008.