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Finding the Zones of Conflict: Tutorial

Finding the Zones of Conflict: Tutorial

| On 01, Jun 1997

Ellen Domb, Ph.D.
The PQR Group, 190 N. Mountain Ave., Upland, CA 91786 USA
(909)949-0857 FAX (909)949-2968

All of the methods of teaching TRIZ, whether software-assisted, classical, or enhanced by the various teachers now practicing, emphasize the importance of solving the “right” problem; that is, don’t put your creative and analytic energy into applying TRIZ to curing only the symptoms of the problem, find the problem drivers and either remove them or modify them to prevent the problem from recurring.

Many of the techniques of ARIZ evolved to help problem solvers find the right problem to solve, at the same time that Juran, Deming, and other founders of the quality improvement movement were introducing people to the idea that they must search for the “root cause” of a quality deficiency, and not consider the problem solved if only the symptoms were treated. Other techniques (such as the Innovative Situation Questionnaire-see book review in this issue) were also developed for the same purpose-to clarify exactly what part of what systems must be improved.

ARIZ now has over 100 steps (in some versions) and may be more than you need to understand the Zones of Conflict for your problem well enough to apply the principles of TRIZ.

There are 2 “zones” of conflict in a problem: spatial and temporal (sometimes called the zone of operation and the time of operation.) That is, you need to know exactly where the conflict arises, and exactly when. Conflict is basic to the definition of a technical problem in TRIZ. Identifying the zones of conflict can help you distinguish what kind of conflict your problem has, which will lead you to an appropriate solution.

There are physical and technical conflicts. (Vocabulary note for TRIZ newcomers: these are labels based on early translations. “Technical” contradictions or conflicts are not more technical than physical conflicts.)

  • Physical conflicts or contradictions: Opposite properties are required of a system. One classical example is the airplane. It must be streamlined to go fast, but it must have protrusions (landing gear) to maneuver. On a lighter note, McDonalds’ coffee must be hot to be enjoyable to drink, but must be cool in order not to burn people who spill coffee while driving. Physical conflicts are resolved using separation principles, resources, and phase transitions. Internal resources are the materials, energy sources, etc. found inside the system under consideration. External resources are found outside. Ideal solutions use internal resources, but short-term practical solutions may use any kind. (See the February issue of The TRIZ Journal for an article on the concept of ideal solutions.)
  • Technical conflicts or contradictions: One characteristic of a system gets better, but another gets worse. These are the typical trade-offs of engineering design. For example, in construction, the strength of a beam gets better, but the weight gets worse. To send signals from a satellite, if you increase the bandwidth (good) you need to increase the power (bad, because it is very expensive to carry extra power generation capability on a satellite.) Technical conflicts are either converted into physical contradictions for resolution, or are resolved directly using the 40 principles of problem solving.

An easy way to get started on analysis of the zones of conflict is the journalism technique. Answer the 6 basic questions of journalism:

  1. Who?
  2. What?
  3. When?
  4. Where?
  5. Why?
  6. How?

This list is frequently called “5W’s and an H” as a mnemonic. In the course of expanding on the questions, you will frequently find the detailed definitions of the zones of conflict, and the explicit definition of the contradiction. Expand the questions as follows:

  1. Who has the problem?
  2. What does the problem seem to be? What are the resources?
  3. When does the problem occur? All the time? Under certain circumstances?
  4. Where does the problem occur?
  5. Why does the problem occur? “Ask why 5 times” was W. Edwards Deming’s advice to those seeking to understand the root cause of a problem.
  6. How does the problem occur?

Let’s try this for one of the classical teaching problems in TRIZ: The acid bath. In this problem, researchers want to test how acid etches various samples of metals. But, the acid also etches the coating lining the container the samples are placed in, and the coatings on the walls of the container have to be replaced frequently.

  1. Who has the problem? Doesn’t seem relevant, but the metallurgy researchers have the problem.
  2. What does the problem seem to be? Low productivity. They frequently have to stop work to replace the coatings. The primary function of the system is to have acid etch the samples, and instead it is etching the lining of the container. This produces another problem, contamination of the acid with the byproducts of the reaction with the lining. What are the resources? Internal to the problem: acid, samples, container, lining. Outside the problem: anything.
  3. When does the problem occur? All the time? Under certain circumstances? Any time acid is in the container.
  4. Where does the problem occur? At the walls of the container. To be more exact, at the surface where the acid contacts the lining of the container.
  5. Why does the problem occur? “Ask why 5 times” was W. Edwards Deming’s advice to those seeking to understand the root cause of a problem. Why do we have a container? The container is needed to confine the acid. Why do we need the acid? To expose it to the samples. Why do we expose it to the samples? To measure the interaction between the sample and the acid. So we really need the measurement, not the container!
  6. How does the problem occur? Acid etches the lining of the container. (In some cases, you would go into detail about the chemical mechanism involved in the etching.)

By the time you have finished answering the 5W’s and H, the contradiction is very clear. It is a physical contradiction:

  • The container should be present to confine the acid.
  • The container should be absent to speed up the work.

The resources internal to the problem are the container, the lining, the acid, and the samples. The problem is resolved by forming the container from the sample material. This simplifies the problem (no container, no linings.) and increases the productivity and the accuracy of the measurement work.

Note that if the problem solvers had rushed ahead without completing the questions, they might have spent all their time trying to find a more efficient way to re-coat the inside of the container, or a more resistant material, rather than finding a solution that eliminates the problem.

Identifying the zones of conflict before applying the tools of TRIZ will help you understand the conflict better, will simplify your problem solving, and may lead you directly to a solution.


Ellen Domb and Karen Tate: Practical Innovation: Using TRIZ to Accelerate Product Development.Seminar notes, 1996-7.

G. S. Altshuller. Creativity as an Exact Science. (See Products and Services)