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The Elegant Solution and TRIZ

| On 06, Oct 2008

By Navneet Bhushan

While many books have been published on the topic of innovation, The Elegant Solution by Mathew May explores Toyota Motor’s formula for innovation.This book shares unknown aspects of Toyota Motors, the Toyota Production System (TPS) and the Toyota product development process. The “elegant solution” discussed in the book and TRIZ (Theory of Inventive Problem Solving) share many commonalities.

The Elegant Solution

Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, isoften referred to as the father of the Japanese industrial revolution and the “King of Japanese Inventors.” Toyoda’s three principles for innovation are: ingenuity in craft, the pursuit of perfection and how the innovation fits into society. The elegant solution focuses on the idea that business innovation is about satisfaction and value, not new gadgetry. Elegance as defined by May is “simplicity found on the other side of complexity.” The chief executive officer for JetBlue defined innovation as “trying to figure out a way to do something better than it’s ever been done before.” Innovation is solving the problem of how to do something better and this closely aligns itself with TRIZ, which is about solving problems.

Ten Practices from The Elegant Solution

1. Learning and Innovation Go Hand in Hand

May claims that learning must occur before innovation, andthat learning and gaining new knowledge is the key to innovation. At Toyota learning comes first – perpetual learning is part of Toyota’s DNA. Learning occurs in four phases: questioning, solving, experimenting and reflection. (This is a variant on the scientific method termed variously as plan-do-study-act (PDSA), observe-orient-decide-act (OODA) and scan-analyze-respond-assess (SARA).)

2. Learn to See (Japanese translation: genchi genbutsu)

Seeing it for oneself is the key. Before defining the problem the first step is to understand the situation, grasp the facts and clearly articulate the problem. To clearly understand a problem requires discipline. The book discusses three ways to look at the problem:

  • Observe:watch the customer
  • Infiltrate:become the customer
  • Collaborate:involve the customer

3. Design for Today

The timing of an idea or innovation is important. The preoccupation with inventingmay cause inventors to missthe clear and present needs of the world. Do not confuse an unarticulated need with a nonexistent one – designing for the unarticulated needs of today serves the purpose for tomorrow’s innovation.

4. Think in Pictures

Making it visual is the generic theme seen in the Toyota Production System. Storytelling with pictures helps in innovation. Images connect minds to thoughts and ideas, and allows theideas to develop.

5. Capture the Intangible

The missing component in many pure-play technology solutions to problems is the perceptual, emotional or “soft side” values. Understanding intangible and soft-value parameters requires designing for personal needs and going beyond the obvious.

6. Leverage the Limits

Innovation demands exploiting limits, not ignoring them. This is a lesson for resource rich organizations. Creating artificial limits and committing to these limits is essential for ingenuity to surface in Toyota. The “stretch” goal setting has four components – aligned, audacious, articulate and arduous.

7. Master the Tension

Satisfy plus suffice is the equivalent of “good enough.” This leads to solutions that just meet the goals. Breakthrough thinking comes from breaking through the mental barriers of good enough solutions. The most powerful tool is to purposefully create dynamic tension – setting opposing forces in direct competition or conflict. Mental blocks are hindrances and hide the breakthrough solution path. Dynamic tension helps identify and breakthrough these mental blocks.

8. Run the Numbers

Data aversion is the cause of many failures. Countering intuition with insight means digging into relevant data to help fight the dangers of bias, convention and instinct. Taiichi Ohno, the father of TPS, maintained that common sense is the enemy. The four-pronged antidote to fight intuition is:

  • Always temper immediate action.
  • Resist drawing conclusions based on emotion.
  • Question hearsay.
  • Draw from experience, but do not rely on it solely.

Becoming truly objective is the goal.

9. Make Kaizen Mandatory

Pursuing perfection requires great discipline – create a standard, follow it and find a better way. Kaizen is Japanese for continuous improvement. It is about idea submission, not acceptance. Kaizen is democratic and focuses on harnessing the human creative spirit. People innovate; companies do not.

10. Keep it Lean

For solving the complexity challenge, Toyota follows Lean thinking. Lean is about building the solution for the customer and driving out anything connected to complexity. Excess is “inelegant.” Lean requires a precise understanding of value and then taking that value to the customers without complexity creeping in.

The Elegant Solution is one of a long series of books written on Toyota. There are also many books on Lean thinking or the Toyota way. The Elegant Solution describes the pure-play innovation formula of Toyota, which is a departure from the other books produced on Lean thinking. Other books about Toyota looked at their product development which has been examined as concurrent product development, evolutionary design approaches and set-based concurrent engineering (SBCE). (This paper focuses on the “elegant solution and how it maps to TRIZ. This is not a mapping of Lean production systems or Toyota’s new product development process.)

Theory of Inventive Problem Solving

TRIZ states that someone, somewhere, at sometime has solved the problem (or a similar problem) the practitioner is facing. It is now a much simpler task to search for the solution rather than creating a whole new one based on an individual perspective. By abstracting the inventiveness of thousands of inventors, TRIZ brings to the problem solver a plethora of robust techniques and methods that have worked historically.

From the study of millions of patents and inventions Genrich Altshuller, the father of TRIZ, with the assistance of his colleagues discovered that the evolution of a technical system is not a random process, but is governed by certain objective laws. These laws can be used to consciously develop a system along its path of technical evolution – by determining and implementing innovations. TRIZ distinguishes two main parts of problem solving: 1) problem description or definition and 2) its solution:

  1. Define, describe and analyze the problem from multiple perspectives. This requires a focused discipline to not jump to an immediate solution. TRIZ has tools and processes for defining the problem.
  2. Find the root contradiction and look at how the contradiction has been solved in the past. Solve by exploring in multiple directions, but start from the end result – the ideal final result (IFR). Focus on functionality not features.

Table 1 lists techniques and tools of TRIZ applicable at various stages of problem solving. The table includes TRIZ tools that might have been influenced by other fields and not just the classical TRIZ techniques.

Table 1:Summary of Main TRIZ Tools for Problem Formulation and Solution
TRIZ Tools for Problem FormulationTRIZ Tools for Problem Solving
Focus on function – the main useful function that the solution needs to deliver to meet a customer/user’s need.Technical contradictions – inventive principles – when two parameters interact with each other and one cannot have the best value of both parameters.
Value is nothing but function delivered to meet a user need.Physical contradictions – when the problem is to have a different value for the same parameter, e.g., a coffee mug needs to be hot inside, but cold outside.
Ideal final result – value delivered at no cost or resource expenditure and not harming the system in anyway, alternately the function is achieved on its own – a self-functioning system. Further the ideal solution should create an ideal system structure that is the least complex.Trends of evolution – Altshuller originally identified eight trends. These have since been expanded by other researchers.
How does the problem/situation look in space and time? Use the 9-windows/screens approach.Resources – are all the resources utilized fully – even the harmful resources?
How does the problem look in depth and scope? – Use the why-what recursive hierarchy.Knowledge and effects is the codified knowledge of how others have achieved a particular function, e.g., cleaning solids.
What are the resources available, and what are the constraints in and around the problem?Ideal final result – how to take the system closer to the IFR rather than focusing on current issues.Can a method be devised to achieve IFR?
Function and attribute analysisSubstance fields and standard solutions
S-curve analysis – where the field is on the S-curve and where the product/solution that needs to be designed for customer needs should focusPsychological inertia tools that TRIZ has to take the inventors mind away from the tunnels of core competence that restricts exploration of other fields
Anticipatory failure determination (AFD) or subversion analysis – inventing failures to create robust designs

Elegant Solution Practices (ESP) and TRIZ

TRIZ and elegant solution practices overlap in many areas.

  • Learning as the basis for innovation (ESP) is equivalent to knowledge categorization/solution categorization from multiple fields – which is found in TRIZ. TRIZ emphasizes knowledge from all fields to solve a problem. Typically this is not available to the engineer/inventor trained in a particular field. The TRIZ emphasis on continuous codification of knowledge/solutions from all fields to achieve a particular function is similar to the ESP of perpetual learning. ESP does not categorically call for learning from outside fields as well, though it may be implicit. TRIZ’s call for knowledge from all fields abstracted and codified as functions and solutions can be the basis for perpetual learning.
  • Genchi genbutsu (ESP) is achieved through 9-windows and ideality in TRIZ. Seeing it for oneself requires observation to be the key faculty of the inventor/problem solver. Observation goes through various stages of look, scan, observe, see, detect and examine. Hence, genchi genbutsu requires looking in space-time and defining the ideal result as the process to identify value, function and problem. Its combination with the TPS tool of value-stream mapping can be potent.
  • Mastering the tension (ESP) is achieved through technical and physical contradictions and inventive principles (TRIZ). The most powerful ESP aspect, mastering the tension, is the same as contradiction identifications, except for one small difference – ESP says one needs to enhance and accentuate the tension in order to solve it. TRIZ proponents can claim, however, that the process of contradictions identification using contradiction chains and focus until one reaches the physical contradiction underlying the technical contradiction is really the practice of accentuating the tension.
  • Think in pictures (ESP) is achieved through 9-windows, function maps, mapping the current system on trends (or laws) of evolution (TRIZ). TRIZ focuses on creating a visual picture of interactions among various system elements and the functions performed by various elements. For example, 9-windows is a system visualization tool that can be used to think through the system interactions. Similarly, a function map proposed in TRIZ is a detailed system visualization tool.
  • Leverage the limits (ESP) is closer to continuously finding root contradictions and eliminating these for moving toward ideality using the size, time and cost (STC) tool (TRIZ). In TRIZ the powerful inventions uncover and resolve physical contradictions (the level 3 inventions). To uncover physical contradictions, one needs to think deeper and deeper to identify the contradiction. One way to reveal these contradictions is to use STC, where one needs to think about stretching the limits of size (from zero to infinite), time (instantaneous to all the time in the world) and cost (zero cost to all the money in the world).
  • Keep it lean (ESP) is closer to maximizing value by continuously moving toward ideality (TRIZ). TRIZ is powerful in keeping it Lean. In fact, ideality thinking – with its focus on maximizing value – shifts the focus toward design and invention. One can argue that the Lean focus on Muda (Japanese for waste) is also powerful. A system that has absolutely zero waste actually is an ideal system. The same objective is being approached, but the starting points were different.

      Table 2 summarizes this analysis.

      Table 2: Toyota’s Elegant Solution Practice Mapped to TRIZ
      Toyota’s Elegant Solution PracticePredominant Equivalent TRIZ Tools
      Learning as the basis of innovationKnowledge categorization/solution categorization from multiple fields
      Genchi genbutsu; see for yourself9-windows and ideality
      Master the tensionTechnical and physical contradictions
      Think in pictures9-windows, function maps, mapping the current system on trends (or laws) of evolution
      Leverage the limitsContinuously finding root contradictions and eliminating these for moving towards ideality using STC
      Keeping it LeanMaximize value – approaching ideal system state

      The preliminary analysis indicates a sufficient level of overlap in the two approaches – yet for a holistic framework one can learn from both approaches to develop a comprehensive innovation framework..


      TRIZ and the elegant solution practices described in the book by Mathew May have considerable overlap. While the two practices have similarities and differences the final innovation methodology – the ultimate framework (if there is a grand innovation theory) has multiple paths that lead to the same solution if one pursues excellence.The author believes there is the potential for a considerable kick to innovators willing to mix the elegant solution and TRIZ into a new cocktail.


      1. May, Mathew E., The Elegant Solution – Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation, Free Press, NY, 2007.
      2. Bhushan N., Set-Based Concurrent Engineering (SBCE) and TRIZ – A Framework for Global Product Development, Proceedings of TRIZCON 2007, Altshuller Institute, 2007.
      3. Lakshminarayanan K., “Holistic Value Framework – Creating Right Value Streams Using TRIZ and Other Concepts,” The TRIZ Journal, January 2007.
      4. Campbell B., “Lean TRIZ,” The TRIZ Journal, June 2004.
      5. Ikovenko S and Bradley J., “TRIZ as a Lean Thinking Tool,” TheTRIZ Journal, February 2005.
      6. Mann D., “The Next Common Sense: Philosophy-level integration of TRIZ into an Integrated Business and Management Innovation Process,” The TRIZ Journal, February 2005.