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The Big Idea: Getting the Ideal Solution

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In the fourth installment of this problem solving series, Brian Campbell explains how a simple equation can help you come up with an innovative solution.


This month I am going to talk about ideality and will actually introduce an equation – the only one in Systematic Innovation.

The equation: Ideality = Benefits / (Cost + Harm)

This simple equation can act as a very powerful strategic tool. Whenever you are looking to change and (hopefully) improve something consider what are the cost and the harm. You will obviously be aware of the benefits – that is why you are making the change. However it is very important to make sure the benefits exceed the cost and harm.
There are clearly no numerical values to the equation – you need to make your own judgement but this is something you would be doing anyway.

Benefits
Let us consider the benefits of the intended change – be it a product, a process, a change to an organisation or whatever. As I have already, said you will have a clear idea of the benefits. However, it is important to think in terms of how the benefits are perceived by others: the customers of your new product, your department members affected by the organisational change. Are there groups for whom the benefits are irrelevant? If you have a group of customers quite happy with your existing product, will they be happy about the change?

Costs
Costs are the easiest of the three factors to consider, and the one where values are easiest to determine – time and money. How much money will it cost and how much of people's time will it take?

Harm
This is perhaps the most useful of the three, because it is the easiest overlooked. What will the organisational change have on morale? Will the adverse effect on morale negate the benefits? What needs to be done to ensure morale is not affected? Will any of your existing customers react badly to the change? Will this be counteracted by new customers?

These three factors can be excellent subjects for a brainstorming session. It enables the team to identify and discuss a surprisingly wide range of issues in a very efficient manner. Use the bullet points below to facilitate such a session:
* State the objective – new product, process, re-organisation.
* Benefits: What needs improving and why? Go for quantity of ideas. For each idea who will this please most?
* Costs: For each idea rate the cost low, medium or high.
* Harm: What are the potential drawbacks?

Ideal Final Result
The ultimate in ideality is when you achieve all the benefits with no cost or harm – free, perfect and now. This concept can be used to make a real leap forward. First of all you decide what might your ideal product or process might be. Don’t worry about practicalities at this stage. In itself this is a useful exercise. It makes you, perhaps for the first time, think about what your ultimate target is. You may even come up with several targets.

The next step is to decide could this be achieved in reality? The chances are not but then you decide how you might achieve the benefits for a small cost or harm. By this process, you can often make a real breakthrough.

As an example from the technical field I was asked to look at how to stir a water reservoir more efficiently. Reservoirs suffer from oxygen shortage in their depths during summer because the deeper layers heat up more slowly than the surface layers. This colder water is denser and so becomes trapped and unable to reach the surface. The conventional approach is to pump compressed air into the depths to drag cold water to the surface. This approach gives the benefit but the costs are high in both capital and running costs.

My approach was stating that the Ideal Final Result was that the reservoir stirred itself. How could this be achieved? One of the cornerstones of systematic innovation is to make use of all your resources especially anything that is harmful. In this case clearly the sun’s rays are harmful so how could they be put to good use? The solution was to use solar cells floating on the surface to power a rotor deep in the reservoir. This would pump air up to the surface. So the reservoir would be stirred with almost zero running costs but with some capital outlay.

Conventional thinking would never have led to this result. The aim would probably been set at how to reduce the compressed air usage. This approach would have not saved any capital, and the running cost reduction would not have been spectacular.

This brief article will hopefully help you analyse problems and opportunities in a new light. Use it as one of your own tools for analysing issues and try it out with your colleagues and staff. As ever I would be very interested in hearing your thoughts.

* About the author: Brian Campbell has been working with systematic innovation for five years. He has a degree in physics and initially came across the techniques whilst working in research and development at Pilkington. He is currently working on an EU funded project to produce a CDROM to help SMEs become more innovative. He has applied TRIZ techniques to the glass industry, water industry, electronics industry and the photographic film business and is keen to see systematic innovation more widely adopted in the UK. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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