A glass cover became a favorite item in my household with time. I wondered, why do we all like it? And I found its design involved so many innovative ideas!
I had used till then all types of glass covers but none really satisfied me. However beautiful those were in look, I felt vaguely some inherent shortcoming in them invariably. I couldn’t pinpoint the reason behind my dissatisfaction though.
A day came when I really needed a cover for my glass that I started using daily. Finding the right one became an important task for me.
Out marketing for other things as I strolled through the old marketplace one day casually looking at the shops on both sides, a small shop attracted my attention and I entered. Perhaps the products on display reminded me of my need for the elusive glass cover of special choice.
I asked the shop owner, “Do you keep glass covers?” To my surprise, small though the shop was, the shop owner placed a fair variety of glass covers on the counter top before me. Because of my long time evaluation of this not so significant object, I was quite sure of what I didn’t want. Quickly pushing aside all other varieties I chose a well-designed box to examine its contents inside.
Outside design may not always reflect the true nature of the insides.
I opened the paper box. A second nice looking box nestled in it. Opening this box I picked up one of the six glass covers inside it to examine closely.
I was surprised with the elegance of the covers as well as the container. I liked the whole package and bought it, thinking perhaps I would get used to liking the covers more with time.
As months and years passed, every member of my household became fond of the covers and started using them for covering glasses to cups to small open-top containers. Only one I kept for my exclusive use.
It became a special item in my household as years passed. It was a small thing, but there was complete affinity to it from all without any reservation.
I wondered, “What is so special about it? Why do we all like it? Is it the looks, or its utility?
Over time my analysis took body and shape.
Innovative design analysis
The material of the covers is hard high quality plastic that has a glossy washable surface. Not only it didn’t allow dirt to get attached, even various stains could be washed off sparkling clean. Even after a long time it looked new. Not many surfaces that we use in our daily lives have this special quality, considering especially our dust-filled humid tropical environment.
This is a minuscule example of the great Principle of Sustainability in the face of a barrage of changing effects over a long period of time.
On a large scale, nature wages an appparently losing battle to hold on to this principle that says,
For any object or system to be sustainable over a long time keeping its good qualities undiminished, a system must have balance and harmony inbuilt and a product to be of special design using suitable materials to withstand wear and tear of time and use.
The delicately printed leaves break the monotony of the off-white cream, but unobtrusively and elegantly without cluttering the available space on the cover surface.
If you look deeper into good designs near and far, you would notice that all great designs have a tendency to use minimum number of different shapes, colors or objects in the whole visible composite. Any good designer knows the high value of what we call “white space” that seems a waste to the untrained, but in effect highlights the small number of elements of interest that are separated by the large white space.
This is the Principle of minimalism that effectively represents a way of life itself.
Soft curves soothe our eyes and senses. Look into your mind to identify what all different types of curves you like and treasure.
Architects know the value of curves and designers of objects routinely use the valuable resource of curves. Most frequent use of curves is in rounding of corners of objects of human use.
Practically all mobiles come with rounded corners.
Softly rounded corners not only look soothing, but increases comfort level and are generally considered as human-friendly. On top of all this, the rounded corners protect a mobile from shock when it falls to the ground accidentally.
Curvature is so important that creators of the TRIZ innovation system included it as the 14th Inventive Principle of Spheroidality or Curvature in the small set of abstract and powerful 40 inventive principles that are supposed to be behind all inventions past, present and future.
Technique of creating projections
This is a highly useful problem solving technique applied all around us effectively. The crucial element that separates this small object of a glass cover from other glass covers that I had seen lay in the small projections of its rounded corners.
Observe the corners. A corner is not only a projection, but also carefully and simply designed in keeping with the whole. The small dip improved the variety of curvatures and at the same time helped better grip. You can hold a cover just by holding one of its corners between two fingers without touching its main covering surface. But this property is not still the most important one, I felt.
All kinds of projections in human built structures are around us serving useful functions. All handles are projections and subsidiary to the main part that is used. Common household cornices protect the outer wall of our houses as well as open windows from sprays of rain and harsh sunrays. The front projection of a baseball or cricket cap protects the eyes of the player from background glare. Projections are undoubtedly inventive resources that improve the functionality of the main object or idea adding additional special value to it.
Whatever principle you observe to be applicable to the tangible touchable objects can surely be extended and applied to your tenuous intangible world of ideas, concepts and knowledge. If you try, you are sure to discover such applicability.
All these are though secondary goodnesses. Can you now pinpoint the most important characteristic of the cover that finally and surely makes it a truly innovative product?
To identify this most important characteristic you have to start right from point zero, analyzing the most basic function of any glass cover. This is Functional analysis and a greatly valued activity and skill-set in the large and important domain of Organizational problems.
A series of questions and answers
What is the most basic function of a glass cover? Obviously it is to cover the glass. This first level of analysis does not reveal the secret that we are after, but nevertheless it acts as a necessary stepping stone to the higher goal.
At the second step we ask, what is the most basic use of a glass and how is a glass cover related to this most basic function of the glass?
Answer to the first part is easy – a glass is used for drinking some kind of liquid poured into it and then drink it immediately or it may so happen that we keep the liquid for some time in the glass and later drink it. This answers first part of the second question and also highlights variations in use.
Now you should be able to answer the second part. The main purpose of the cover is to protect the liquid inside the glass or the insides of the glass itself when empty, from dust or other outside infiltrations.
Protection of liquid has again two aspects – the first we have already considered - inflow of dust or other unwanted materials. What is the second? Can you guess?
What we are doing in our idle spare time is to explore all possibilities and aspects of use in an expanding path exhaustively. Being well aware of the principle of exhaustivity we don’t need much time to spell out the second way the liquid is protected – a heat-insulated glass cover protects the hot (or cold) liquid inside the glass from heat outflow from inside (or inflow from outside for cold drinks), the glass itself being a fairly good heat insulator. The cover acts as a barrier to both inflow and outflow.
We are being exhaustive to highlight just how principle of exhaustivity can be applied to this important activity of functional analysis so that no aspect of the functions is left unexplored at all.
We can very well represent this progressive series of questions and answers diagrammatically that would aid visualization and identification of missing points.
Diagrammatic representation is an oft-used problem solving tool. There are many popular diagrammatic representations used in organizational environment. Our main focus being you and I, we would just say, when needed use a simple diagram that can be suitably modified by yourself for meeting your needs. You are not bound to use any specific recommended type of diagram. Try experimenting to choose your tool. The tool should be flexible enough to allow your experimentation and finally fulfill your specific need.
Coming back to our question and answer method of functional analysis, we find that are confronted with a barrier to our further progress.
Which function does the cover serve other than the functions already considered? We pause a while and finally admit, “No, there does not seem to be any other direct function that the glass cover serve.”
I myself found this barrier not easy to cross till the hidden crucial difference suddenly flashed in my mind. But we don’t like waiting for that sudden flash thing. It is not a certain and sure way to reach the successful end of an investigation.
We would always like to follow a systematic methodical path to break down a tricky barrier hiding the not easily visible desired solution.
This is all-encompassing Systems approach. In absence of any easily available and accessible system, you devise a system of your own.
We turn to a different direction.
Principle of combination
One of the powerful principles we have routinely used unaware is the Principle of Combination. Especially useful is the variant of this great principle, the Principle of Binary States.
Principle of Binary States says,
If an object has two possible states, even though you are familiar with using only one state (the other state perceived to be not so useful and thus ignored), while studying the object for understanding it fully, you must study the OPPOSITE state as well in full details.
This principle can be related to other very similar ones such as Principle of Opposites or the Principle of Complementary.
If your objective is to study the whole range of human beings, studying only the women won’t be enough, you must study the men also. In this special form of statement we consider the women as the main representative of the humans and men as the complementary form of women, just as day is the complementary form of night which is more natural. For the day to happen, you need an extra resource – the sun to rise and shine.
In reality though we finally accept that in all two-state situations both states are equivalent to each other in terms of their importance – to us.
Jumping domains our mind goes on to mathematics to identify positive and negative numbers, integers and inverse of integers or even sin$\theta$ and cos$\theta$ just as in the digital world everything is made up of 0s and 1s.
Principle of Combinations is a more general form of this two-state principle and considers any number of states of an object and even any combination of all states of each component of a multi-component composite object. Not only objects, this idea can very well be extended to the area of ideas or situations considering all entities, tangible or intangible, involved in a situation as components.
As an example of states of objects, the most common example that we are familiar with is water in three states, liquid normal water, solid ice and gaseous water vapour. By studying the characteristics and usefulness of these states one can even devise inventive ways to use the change or a state itself that is not in general use.
Not surprisingly, noting the value of multiple states of objects, the TRIZ innovation system creators christened Change of State as an inventive principle itself. As we can see from our list of 40 inventive principles, this is the 35th principle in the list of 40 inventive TRIZ principles and named as “Parameter changes” representing change of state as an example.
For principle of combination we may cite a simple example. If a husband has only two possible states of being tall or short (subjective of course) and a wife also just two possible states of being fat or thin (again subjective), all possible combinations of states of this husband-wife pair are exactly four in number, two multiplied by two.
If you know the branch of mathematics Permutation and Combination, it might aid you somewhat in calculating the number of possible combinations in terms of a formula. But this approach of understanding combinations is not necessary. With your own systematic methodical approach you may easily be able to generate all possible combinations of states in real life situations.
Let’s return to our problem state enumeration task now.
The reverse questioning technique
We have asked till now, what functions does the glass cover serve? What it should do! In contrast, now we will ask the opposite question – what it must not do. It’s well in line with the thinking behind all Do’s and Don’ts lists that we encounter time and again. These are based on the Reverse questioning technique, that again stems from Principle of binary states.
But when we go over every aspect of what we have covered and discovered this category of opposite or inverse possibilities seems to have been already covered.
Yet again we are confronted with a seemingly impenetrable barrier waiting for the sudden revelation.
We need to think in a different direction.
In mathematics, division may just be considered as the opposite of multiplication. But recall, without defining and studying division we could never have discovered the existence of wonderful world of decimals or fractions!
It is not enough to consider the opposite state just as the complementary state to the generally known and used state. The opposites may have tremendous wealth of knowledge and usefulness in them.
Thus meeting a barrier in our investigative progress we look further in what all possible ways the cover interacts with the glass and should not interact with the glass.
Proceeding in this new direction very soon we discover the elusive detail we were after all through – when working as the cover, the main surface of the cover must touch the rim of the glass.
Should we give importance to this new piece of knowledge? The answer is a firm “Yes” as, when drinking, our lips must touch the rim, and so when working as a cover, the cover not only should protect the insides of the glass, it must not also contaminate the rim of the glass with dirt.
Can it possibly conform to this restriction?
To answer with clarity, we need to consider two possible states of the glass cover – a state when it acts as the cover resting on the glass and the second state when it passively rests on the table while I drink my morning tea.
When a common glass cover is kept on a table, generally having a flat surface it invariably touches the table surface and attracts contamination of dirt or other microbes.
How to ensure that even when the cover is placed on the table while in its passive state, its main covering surface doesn’t touch the table surface?
Principle of separation
The powerful Principle of Separation now works its magic. This principle is mentioned as the 2nd principle in the list of 40 inventive principles of TRIZ. But it was meant to be an action of separating or taking out a part of an object from its whole. It is surely an important inventive principle so useful in forming split-type air-conditioners and other useful objects in our daily life. But possibly the TRIZ scientists didn’t mean to study and use the Separation itself as a powerful problem solving resource.
It is so well known among various parts of the world as, we always try to keep the Ghee away from a flame, or for that matter, in some places, establish such things as “Only for girls” and “Only for boys” schools.
A Maglev train uses separation (caused by magnetic levitation of course) between the moving train and the railway line to decrease friction and increase speed enormously.
In this very ordinary glass cover for daily use, the small projected corners create the much needed separation between the covering surface and the table surface when the glass cover rests on the table and thus prevents contamination of the covering surface.
The corners act as four tiny legs of the glass cover, no less.