In the previous section, I gave some examples of the application of the TRIZ methodology in enterprises. An attentive reader must have noticed that the companies I have mentioned are world giants: General Electric, Kraft Heinz, Procter & Gamble, Intel, Hyundai Motor Group, Posco, Honda and Chiquita.
The first conclusion that can be drawn from reading the list above is quite obvious: “TRIZ is for wealthy, multinational companies that have a lot of money to spend, extensive development and engineering departments, and time to plan development in certain directions”.
As a rule, this conclusion is not and never was true – I will try to prove it in the following paragraphs – but it is undoubtedly true that large corporations were the first to implement the methodology of systemic innovations on a large scale.
However, more than two decades have passed since the first implementations. During this time, the methodology itself changed, but also the realities of the world economy. Innovations today do not come from closed laboratories of large companies so often. Much more often they are generated in start-ups that create ideas, develop them to some extent, and then sell them to giants who, in turn, bring them to the market.
➡ Can start-ups use TRIZ in their activities?
➡ Can it be done by companies operating regionally or even locally?
The answer, of course, is YES – let’s look at some examples.
Below I will point out a few examples of start-ups that were created in the first decade of the 21st century and used various tools of system innovation in the development process – from analytical tools that indicate areas and directions of development, up to tools for effective concept building, prototyping or solving secondary problems. The companies mentioned in the examples still exist today and often have a whole portfolio of innovative products. It is also no secret that the founders of the start-ups listed below were specialists in the TRIZ methodology, who created the consulting company GEN3 Patners a few years earlier, about which I wrote more in the previous section. They were the first to notice that the methodology of the systemic creation of innovations can work in building a business almost from scratch and lead it to market success.
Let’s start with James Sims, the founder of GEN3 Partners, who in 2004 joined and at the same time took the position of CEO (today on the Supervisory Board) of the AirGain start-up (www.airgain.com). Airgain is today a large provider of embedded antenna technologies that enable the creation of high-performance wireless networks across a wide range of home, corporate, and industrial devices. At the end of the 90s, however, it was an ordinary start-up whose paths crossed with specialists from GEN3 Partners. The first joint activities were carried out as early as in 2000. Airgain’s engineers and advisory team have methodically confirmed that the most valuable parameter for “consumers” of telecommunications systems is large range, signal coverage and high information transfer rate (this is their Main Parameter of Value). This meant that improving these properties should be their first priority. From a technical point of view, it boiled down to the need to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) parameter. The above statement was almost obvious to industry specialists. However, pointing out how to improve SNR was no longer easy or obvious. Only the implementation of the TRIZ methodology allowed to identify the most promising way to improve SNR. It was supposed to increase the antenna gain by using the so-called Smart Antenna – SA. An intelligent antenna should be understood here as an antenna system that automatically focuses its beam in the direction that ensures the best signal quality and thus radically improves the range and speed of communication. Implementing SA on a Wi-Fi system was a fairly new idea and challenging as it required solutions of several engineering contradictions. Previously, SAs were only used in large and expensive systems such as military radars and cell towers
Using TRIZ tools, the GEN3 team solved all the technical issues and by 2003 prototypes of low-cost SA-enabled Wi-Fi devices for desktops had been built, tested and patented. Then, however, another problem to solve appeared – this time clearly outlined by the recipients – the overall dimensions of the antenna could not exceed 15x100x100 mm (HxWxD). The biggest limitation was the height (the antenna profile had to be very low (15 mm), much lower than the height of the half-wave antenna used at that time, which measured about 60 mm for Wi-Fi frequencies). The simple use of 15-mm antennas would significantly reduce the efficiency of the system, which of course was unacceptable. The team of advisers engaged by Airgain re-entered the game with the primary task of resolving this technical contradiction and designing the required antenna from scratch. Figure below describes the process step by step.
It should be mentioned that the presented course of works had two critical moments that could have influenced the implementation of the entire project, and thus the continued existence of the Airgain start-up. The first critical moment was already in Phase 1, when the key customer and the main initiator of the antenna reduction idea wanted to see a preliminary SA concept that would indicate a way to reconcile dimensional requirements and high performance simultaneously. At the same time, he gave the team an extremely short time limit to indicate this concept.
Airgain engineers did not have a good solution and it was only a team of advisers that, after putting their methodology into action, was able to quickly develop and describe several concepts that combined customer requirements. The second critical moment took place at stage 4: the developed solution was so innovative that the existing methods of testing and verifying antennas did not allow to fully capture and present the full capabilities of the intelligent antenna.
The customer of Airgain also noted this. His R&D team initially tested the prototype in their own laboratory but the obtained results did not show any advantage of the prototype antenna compared to a regular dipole antenna. To solve that problem, Airgain engineers re-teamed with TRIZ advisors and together developed a new testing methodology in a multi-path environment.
Advisors urgently developed a new methodology for wireless field testing of Wi-Fi systems, which was finally adopted by Airgain and handed over to a task force. Later, this methodology became an important part of Airgain antenna technology. Except for the two critical moments, the remaining stages of the development process ran smoothly and resulted in the commercial product NaxBeam75 SA, which was patented and successfully commercialized. In January 2007, this antenna won the California State Authority award for the most innovative product of 2006 in the Connectivity category.
The above project is a model example of the possibilities offered by a systemic approach to innovation. The advisers who dealt with this venture did not, from their own point of view, make any spectacular feat – they simply methodically and consistently used successive tools that gave them results that contributed to the next steps and followed this path to commercial success. Airgain is not the only example of a company that has moved from the basic idea phase to the well-established product phase. Let’s look at the few others:
Powermers (www.powermers.com) is a company founded by Sam Kagan (Executive Director of GEN3 Partners), headquartered in Ohio, which today holds 5 US patents, 46 international patents and no third party licensing obligations. The development team consists of 9 PhDs in electrochemistry, 4 PhD students in electrochemistry and materials science and 5 battery design engineers whose experience includes fuel cell work and battery design at the GM Automotive Research Center and Ohio State University. It achieved its market position in just 11 years of existence (it was established in 2009), thanks to a consistent system approach to creating innovation. The company today has a number of technologies developed in this way. These include patented nano-scale polymer technology, increasing the efficiency of existing energy storage systems (carbon supercapacitors and lithium-ion capacitors, lithium-ion and lithium-air batteries) and a new generation of advanced systems.
Another example of a “TRIZ start-up” is Healbe (healbe.com), which develops non-invasive wrist-worn devices that continuously monitor body functions by measuring impedance, temperature, heart rate and calories burned. The start-up was established in 2012 and those involved in its creation were Artem Shipitsyn, George Mikaberidze, Stan Povolotsky, as well as a team from GEN3 Partners. The company launched a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014 that raised more than $ 1 million to launch GoBe – a smarter wristband that uses patented Healbe FLOW™ technology and other innovative features to monitor more aspects of health and people’s well-being than any other wearable activity tracker. Unprecedented functionalities were achieved by first analyzing the market in terms of the value parameters for which the potential recipient would realistically want to pay. Then, the tools of systemic creation of innovations were consistently applied, which resulted in a market success. Today Healbe offers the third evolution of its device and continues to work on its development. The company headquarters is in California, executive office in Moscow, R&D department in St. Petersburg and the production in Schenzhen, China.
Now let’s rest from American start-ups and global markets for a moment and consider whether a systemic approach to innovation can work for example in Poland. Although quite a lot of people, companies and institutions in that country deal with the promotion and implementation of a methodical approach in research and development, the modern TRIZ methodology is still not widely used by polish entrepreneurs. There are, however, exceptions… a spectacular exceptions.
❗➡ Allcomp is a Polish company that has been on the market for 30 years. It produces machines for the textile industry, which it sells in over 20 countries in Europe and the world. In 2016, the president of the company – Andrzej Zając decided not so much to engage advisors and implement one (or even several) innovative projects, but to teach his entire development and engineering team a new way of thinking about innovation. At that time, a program for implementing the methodology of systemic innovation was initiated, during which almost 30 employees of the company carried out 10 innovative projects under the supervision of consultants and trainers.
❗➡ The “learning through practice” approach was a hit, because as a result of the implementation program, the company’s employees managed to develop 15 innovative solutions. Let’s look at an example: one of the problems reported by the recipients of the devices was the rapid dullness of the blade in one of the machines. Until that moment, engineers have dealt with this phenomenon by dealing with the sharpening process itself, including the durability of the blades and the quality of the sharpeners. However, thanks to the systemic approach to innovation and the tools used, it was possible to reach the root problem – it was discovered that the blade blunting is the result of its too high temperature during operation.
❗➡ After redefining the problem and applying an algorithmic approach, the team proposed a range of solutions. One of them was to cover the blade with a thermally conductive layer. It was selected as optimal. The prototype was tested by one of the customers who previously reported the biggest problems in using the existing technology. The result of the tests was a significant improvement in the quality and several times longer life of the blade itself.
The implementation of the methodology of systemic innovation in Allcomp is an example of a mature development decision, investment in employees and the willingness to enter a completely new level in terms of innovation. Of course, not everyone has to, even not everyone should, start with such an extensive program.
I can cite two examples of Polish start-ups that used the TRIZ methodology (or rather its evolution – the Design for Patentability) to implement slightly smaller challenges. In the first case, the work began with the analysis of the competitive and patent environments, the aim of which was to determine the possibility of obtaining patent protection for the company’s solution.
On the other hand, in the second case, the need signaled by the start-up concerned the analysis of the patent solution it owned and the determination of whether the competitors could bypass this patent easily and at low cost. In the next step, it was planned to prepare a patent umbrella, consisting of a number of modified versions of the technical system, so that they would protect the proper solution against copying by competitors. It can be seen therefore, that not only leaders can think about innovations in a systemic way. These tools are also available to business beginners. Especially because they can be used randomly and point-wise. Not every company has to use the entire arsenal of systemic thinking about innovations from the very beginning. Sometimes it takes just one step to improve your market situation.
Summarizing all the above information about “How do leaders create innovations in a systemic way?” it should be emphasized once again that all companies can create and develop innovations in an orderly and methodical manner. Starting from the largest corporations whose products can be bought in even the most secluded corners of the world, to companies operating locally and those that, beyond the idea, have only good intentions of their owners. The methodology of systemic innovation in its range of tools will find tools that will be useful to each of these companies. In order to additionally support my words, I will present a graph that shows the model stages of an innovative project implementation and the basic tools that can be used at these stages
As you can see, the process of Systemic Innovation Creation is in fact systemic. The results of using one tool contribute to the next and so on to the end. At the same time, the methodology guides the development team from one stage to the next, clearly indicating what and when should be applied. It is also worth noting that the phases of problem identification, problem solving and concept substantiation presented here are actually only the most crucial stage related to the creation of innovation. Other, equally crucial, is a stage of early and appropriately precisely verification of what should be developed and which features of a given product or process should be focused on. Not everything deserves to be developed. Sometimes the best course of action (and the methodology of systemic innovation can also indicate it) is to abandon the further development of a given solution and not spend more money on this product.
I hope that the history of the development of the methodology of systemic innovation and the image of its modern way of operating, which I presented in the above three parts of this article, have shown that this methodology is available today to anyone who just would like to use it. My goal was to show that in the modern world you cannot count on a stroke of luck or a flash of genius. Success is achieved today with arduous and systematic work. But you have to work wisely. Instead of searching in the dark, you can follow an algorithm and thus develop both gradual and radical innovations. Of course some luck is and will be needed, but it is worth helping this luck.