Continuous Improvement... and TRIZ

While the term “Continuous Improvement” is thrown around with reckless abandon, I find that few quality professionals have a good understanding of it. While most QMS (Quality Management System) standards promote… or even require continuous improvement, most appear to lack a basic understanding of what continuous improvement actually involves.

CI, the Optimization Wall & TRIZ

When radios first appeared, the signal had to be manually adjusted for optimal reception. During the mid-twentieth century, Automatic Frequency Control (AFC), also called Automatic Fine Tuning (AFT), was introduced allowing the radio circuitry to automatically keep a resonant circuit tuned to the frequency of an incoming radio signal. It was primarily used in radio receivers to keep the receiver tuned to the frequency of the desired station.

AFC was needed because, after the bandpass frequency of a receiver is tuned to the frequency of a transmitter, the two frequencies can drift apart, interrupting the reception. This can be caused by a poorly controlled transmitter frequency, but the most common cause is drift of the center bandpass frequency of the receiver, due to thermal or mechanical drift in the values of the electronic components.

Using the technology available at that time, this “optimized” the radio tuning process.

During the 1970s, receivers began to be designed using frequency synthesizer circuits, which synthesized the receiver's input frequency from a crystal oscillator using the vibrations of an ultra-stable quartz crystal. These maintained sufficiently stable frequencies that AFC's were no longer needed.

At that point, the radio tuning process had been “optimized” using the available technology.

No other improvements appear to be possible… using current technology.

This takes us into a separate realm of “improvement” involving “innovation”… called TRIZ.

TRIZ: Levels of Innovation

A HUGE barrier to improvement is “technical contradictions”. These are limitations or barriers encountered when using traditional improvement approaches and tools. To overcome “technical contradictions”, we need a new set of tools.

TRIZ consists of 5 levels of innovation

  1. Quantitative improvement of the existing function/principle (e.g., to reinforce a building, its walls are made thicker).
  2. Qualitative improvement of the existing function/principle (e.g., merging an alarm clock and CD-player).
  3. Extending a known function/principle combination to a new market (e.g., extending the function “to see through”, based on the principle “x-ray emission” from medical purposes (medical market) to different applications within different markets, such as destructive testing).
  4. Creating a new function/principle combination (e.g., the first radio transmitter or Ebay.com).
  5. Discovering a new principle (e.g., through creating new scientific knowledge, such as x-rays or the photo-voltaic effect).

For example, the Stirling Engine, a 200 year old idea, is finding new applications / markets (as a Level 3 Innovation).

More: Modern Uses of Stirling Engines