Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Improving the Fuzzy Front End Part 2

By Donald A. Coates

The following article is part two of a three part series. Part one, Improving the Fuzzy Front End of Product Development, talked about how the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) plays a critical role in invention and innovation. The author’s four-part model for continuous innovation is continued here in part two.


The fuzzy front end is critical for great invention and innovation. The following definitions will clarify further how the first three of four elements (problem solving/problem identification, business analysisand business planning) act and should help prioritize activity in a fuzzy front end improvement plan.

Problem Identification

Problem identification, problem solving and reduction to practice are considered part of the problem solving element.

  • Problem identification is the first part of the problem solving element. A problem used here is a challenge to eliminate the gap (difference) between a desired situation and the current believed situation. This gap has obstacles, which implies there is a problem, for achieving the desired situation. The problem may be assigned or requested by customers, supervisors, etc.
  • Identification is discovering and defining the gap between a desired situation and a current believed situation in terms that are understandable and actionable. Identification may contain several layers of problems. The first layer may be a general problem for management (the need to become more profitable) down to a single activity that is a well-defined problem such as igniting butane gas without reaching the auto-ignition temperature.

This does not mean that a problem identified is the best one to pursue, nor is it the correct definition of the situation or that it is in alignment with the general problem pursued. That decision may be made later in a business analysis or business planning phase.

Table 1 illustrates some of the more popular problem identification and definition methods used. Note: It is not intended to be an inclusive list of methods, but only the popular methods thatare found helpful by the author. Also, the power of the method (as determined by the author) is given a P rating; where 10 is the best rating.

TRIZ and Problem Identification

The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ) is rated the highest for both problem identification and problem solving. This is because it contains methods to:

The Theory of Inventive Problem Solving is recognized as one of the most powerful solution methods and is the key to process innovation.1,2 It is a new science and has been developed mainly in the areas of physics, chemical effects and business. Author Elena Novitskaya has applied it to graphic arts but there are many other areas where TRIZ could be applied if developed.3

Table 1: Popular Problem Identification and Definition Methods
Problem ID Method Benefit, 10=BIC
General and maintenance Kepner tregoe (problem ID steps) Defined steps, P5 (power level)
Brainstorming/Affinity diagram Somewhat easy, P4
Five whys Easy, P3
Customer involvement (focus, problem ID, ethnography, kano) Obtains customer feeling, P6
Three laws of marketing physics Good customer perspective without customer involvement, fast, P3
Fishbone diagrams Organizes and prompts responses, P4
Problem ID Method Benefit, 10-BIC
Technical FMEA and function analysis Organizes, prioritizes complex system and ID failure and solution approach, requires a proposed/existing system, P6
TRIZ ID ideal system, conflicts, subsystems, P8
QFD Creates compromise definition of problem (customer, marketing, eng), P5

Problem solving is making meaningful progress on the gap reduction to a greater extent than previously available. The total proposed solution to a defined problem is a concept. Business analysis would determine whether the activity should be pursued. No solution to a problem could:

  • Slow the process
  • Require additional work
  • Table the issue
  • Abandon it

This is a critical step in the model. Problem solving methods used are shown in Table 2 with TRIZ receiving the highest rating. The other methods are useful for a well-defined problem and for simpler problems it provides a fast and easy approach to a potential solution. Much has been written about these methods, especially brainstorming, which is utilized in TRIZ.4 Given time it is enlightening to apply TRIZ to the problem and see how many more solutions could have been developed.

Reduction to Practice

One of the ways reduction to practice worksis through IP prosecution. Creating a patent is sometimes referred to as constructive reduction to practice. It is one of the best ways to legally document the solution. The term originates from patent law where creating a patent or provisional patent is considered a reduction to practice even though a physical prototype was not constructed. In this fast paced world, having a legal document to establish an invention date is important. The discussion is expanded to include an invention disclosure (legal document) in the cases where the patent becomes a subject to infringement proceedings. The only other quick way to establish an invention date is to have each page of a lab notebook signed and witnessed. Even with a physical prototype, the inventor must legally document the device to establish an invention date. Without it, the United States Patent and Trademark Office will use the date they receive the patent application as the date of invention.

Reduction to practice is creating a physical prototype. This takes time but is one of the best ways to ensure the inventor has captured the method to solve the problem. Submitting a provisional or utility patent application based on the prototype will reflect a working embodiment within the scope of the patent. If the scope of the final solution is outside the original patent submission, the inventor will have to abandon the original patent and resubmit a new application. This gets expensive.

Portfolio development adds the problem solution concept to an internal inventory for future use. There are other alternatives in this box such as conducting verification testing or jumping off interface to the development stage of a stage gate development process.

Table 2: Problem Solving Methods
Problem solution Method Benefit, 10=BIC
General and maintenance General scientific method (most general approach and contained in many other methods) Generally accepted approach, P4 (power level)
Kepner tregoe (problem solution steps) Defined steps, P5
Brainstorming solutions Somewhat easy, P4
Five whys Easy, solution becomes obvious, P3
Fishbone diagrams Organizes and prompts solutions, P3
Problem ID Method Benefit, 10-BIC
Technical FMEA/Function analysis ID failure modes and recommends solutions, P5
TRIZ ID ideal system, conflicts, subsystems, P8

Business Analysis

Business analysis means analyzing the problem solution/concept as documented by the opportunity identification form, basis for interest form (shown in Figure 1), invention disclosures or other documents that may support business analysis for potential innovation. Business analysis determines the degree that the activity should be pursued. These documents measure the commercial benefit. The business analysis is dependent on the quality of data it receives or as the saying goes “garbage in is garbage out.” It is advisable to have more of a solution than only an idea. In order to not exclude the submission of good ideas from anyone, a route from problem identification to business analysis is shown. It also allows the submission of unintended discoveries such as Nylon or Scotch Guard, which were laboratory accidents found to have applications.

Figure 1: Basis for Interest Form

Table 3 shows the opportunity identification form. It can document an idea or partial solution, even before a solution is proffered. If the idea receives a favorable rating from the business analysis team further information or refinement will be requested from the originator or a more appropriate person (someone from the fuzzy front end) or it is relegated to a portfolio for later consideration or declared dead on arrival.

Table 3: Opportunity Identification Form
• Proposal
• Type of program (new product development, sourcing, productivity, capacity)
• Benefit to company (estimated)

When more information is requested, the basis for interest form is developed and represents the next level of analysis by the business analysis team. The basis for interest form contributes rough estimates of data that are important for the next disposition of the concept such as market overview with a business model definition, commercial and technical risk assessments, duration for development, sales estimates, profit potential, market share impact and more.

Next to problem solving this is arguably the most immediate priority. Most companies start with problem solving and a business analysis that hits the bull’s eye. Later, other factors such as long-term planning and environment are used to enhance the longevity of the enterprise.

The overall process for the business analysis element is summarized in Figure 2. It shows at least two reviews of the data. The first involves primarily the opportunity identification form and other documentation that is available. This initial screening will determine if the idea is pursued in the short term. The second screening requires the basis for interest form and other documentation to explain it. This screening will determine if the concept receives resources for:

  • Further research
  • Going to development immediately
  • Relegating to a portfolio for longer term consideration
  • Considering it for outside development or commercialization
  • Discarding it as dead on arrival
Figure 2: Business Analysis Review Process

Business Planning

Business planning for innovation is the next element of the innovation process model. Business planning is used for future business and innovation actions. It maintains the continued viability and growth of the business. These actions relate to the business mission, business models, products or services planned in support of the mission and models and company goals. It is an integrative interdisciplinary activity.

The following steps are not intended to be a primer for developing business plans but instead to show how the invention and innovation activities relate to the plan. A typical business plan offers many of the following activities:

  • Review vision, goals and objectives as seen by upper management
  • Review state of the business (including performance to old business plan), growth and profitability
  • Review consumer and customer trends, demographics, must haves, needs and wants that have been collected from ethnographic studies, market studies and other research.
  • Review the competition, company market share position, channels of distribution and business models for the channels
  • Review product lines
  • Review fuzzy front end activities that are in the process and review portfolio technology that may be germane
  • Analyze the company strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.


How to brainstorm and document a new business plan that includes a multifamily product development plan with linkage to a multifamily technology plan and strategic initiatives will be investigated in part three. A family is a particular design business concept that is a configuration that would last for several years before a new and better family is introduced. Each industry has its own cycle time. The cycle time is partly dependent on goals, competition, available innovation and ability to amortize the investment before a new platform is introduced. A multifamily product plan is part of the last element of the fuzzy front end. It is known as enviroment and it will also be explored in part three.


  1. Criticism section of review for Blue Ocean Strategy, Wikipedia, December 30, 2008.
  2. Steve Hamm, “Tech Innovations for Tough Times,” Business Week, Technology, December 25, 2008.
  3. Elena Novitskaya, “TRIZ-Principles for Art-Composition,” Generator, December 29, 2008.
  4. Tom Kelly, The Art of Innovation, Currency Books, 2001.

About the Author:

Dr. Donald Coates is an assistant professor at the School of Technology at Kent State University in Ohio and has developed an online course for TRIZ. He also teaches and conducts research in innovation morphology and energy/power. Dr. Coates holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the State University of New York and a M.S. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. He was formerly the vice president of engineering in the Speed Queen Division of Raytheon and director of research for the Hoover Company of the Maytag Corporation. Contact Donald A. Coates at dcoates (at)