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HBR Understands Resources

HBR Understands Resources

| On 02, Oct 2009

Ellen Domb

The October 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review has a very nice article on what TRIZ calls the use of resources: ”The Power of Unwitting Workers.” An important part of teaching about the use of resources is explaining that resources are not just things. Energy of any sort, from the system or from the environment, is a resource. Information from the system or the environment, or information generated as a byproduct of a function of the system are all resources. And the obvious resources in the system–the parts of the system, waste materials generated when building the system, etc. 

The HBR article has 3 example of using the customer’s energy to power the system:

  1. The revolving door at a railroad station in the Netherlands turns a generator to power the lights in the train station.

  2. Cars in the parking lot at a supermarket in England run over a system of plates. Deflection of the plates engages a flywheel, which runs a generator, producing electricity, AND the system of plates slows the car down, so energy is not wasted on braking by friction.

  3. Power-generating floors in the Tokyo Station of the Japan Railway Company use piezoelectric devices to generate electricity–it is not yet at the economically useful level, but shows great promise.

In these cases the customer knows he/she is doing the work, and the company is getting “green” public relations as well as power.

The information examples are more subtle:  the customer is aware of doing work for one purpose, but not that the company is getting other benefits.

  1. About 10% of the questions on the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test, used for college admissions in many regions) are not really part of the test. The scores aren’t used for the test-taker’s evaluation. Those questions are used for calibration and for developing future tests. The test-takers act as unpaid information providers.

  2. When you use a website with “CAPTCHA” security (they ask you to type in your interpretation of a messy-looking set of letters or numbers) they are not only deciding that you are a human being, and therefore entitled to use that site, they are getting you to help decipher phrases that have caused problems for optical scanners that are putting old books into databases. Last year CAPTCHA users helped trascribe almost 150,000 books.

These information examples are reminiscent of the example I used in my talk at the Computer-Aided Innovation conference (Harbin, China, August 2009).  There has been a recent simplification of the method used to measure the speed of vehicles on highways, which is a great example of patterns of evolution, trimming, and use of resources.

A. 1950’s Vehicles run over a hose stretched across the road. The pulse of air pressure is recorded to measure the vehicle passage and the time between pulses measures speed.

B.  1970’s Both light and sound signals are bounced off the vehicles, and technology borrowed from military radar and sonar systems are used to measure the speed of the vehicles.

C. 2000’s Drivers use cell phones while driving. The signals move from tower to tower with the cell, and from cell to cell as the vehicles move. The speed of transfer is the speed that vehicles are moving on the highway. In other words, the drivers give the highway operators the information as a by-product of using the phone. The need for a measuring system goes away (absorbed into the supersystem, in TRIZ-talk). Next phase has already begun–there are cars that receive the date directly into their navigation systems, and integrate it with the GPS, to suggest alternate routes around congested regions.

Do you have a great resource story?   Share it with us using the comment feature!