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




| On 07, Aug 1997


{Interviewer’s note: James Kowalick is founder of the Renaissance Leadership Institute in Oregon House, California, 95962 [P.O. Box 659, Telephone: (916) 692-1944; E-Mail:] . His company provides TRIZ training and consulting. He teaches CREATING BREAKTHROUGH PRODUCTS tocorporate executives attending Cal Tech’s Two-Day Executive Training Sessions in Pasadena. He is a prolific inventor, an engineer and scientist, and an author. This interview was conducted in his office in California’s Sierra Mountains.}


TRIZ Journal How long have you been involved with the creative approach called TRIZ?

Kowalick It began in 1975. That was a magical year for me. Alone one evening in the basement of a poorly lit library in Philadelphia, I wandered up and down aisles stacked with dust-covered books, until at one point I paused and turned to face an English translation of a Russian-authored book. Pulling it off the shelf, I wiped off the dust and began browsing through its contents. And there it was, the law of three: “All technical and psychological functions are composed of three elements.” The author, Peter Ouspensky, is no longer living. He had been aware of this law during the Bolshevik revolution in war-torn Russia.

TRIZ Journal What were you doing when you became aware of this discovery?

Kowalick Directing a government-operated weapons research laboratory and working on a top secret defense program. I’d recently received a doctorate in engineering, and was also pursuing a career in medicine.

TRIZ Journal Did this new information change your life?

Kowalick Yes. I read several other books by the same author, while studying his “Law of triads” in much more depth. Soon I’d organized my own consulting firm, the Institute for Defense Technology. In 1984 I moved to California to accept the position of Director of Engineering at the Aerojet-General Corporation. By 1988 I was teaching courses on leading-edge design tools at UCLA and at the California Institute of Technology.


TRIZ Journal So you knew about TRIZ before the collapse of the iron curtain?

Kowalick I had been practicing my own version of TRIZ in the United States for over 12 years. Then, in 1990 a consultant I knew called about “a new Russian technique called TRIZ.” I was aware that the technique was not new – that its true basis went back in time to (at least) the 1920’s in Russia.

TRIZ Journal And what happened next?

Kowalick It was a false start. I was invited to a briefing by a Californian “TRIZ” company now located elsewhere. The company’s Russian technical staff was technically brilliant and competent, but some of their managers were incompetent, overly aggressive, and not customer-conscious. No really useful technical information came from this briefing, and I left with a high degree of frustration.


TRIZ Journal How long did you stay on at Aerojet?

Kowalick I left Aerojet-General to found Renaissance Leadership Incorporated (RLI), and became an instructor for Cal Tech’s Executive Management Program. Our company, RLI, is now the most respected TRIZ corporate consulting and training organization in the world. As director of the Leonardo da Vinci Institute, an RLI division, I am responsible for developing TRIZ for use by American corporations. The Leonardo da Vinci Institute also offers assistance in TRIZ Technology Forecasting, and certifies TRIZ practitioners at various levels from beginner to master.

TRIZ Journal So how did you learn the contemporary version of TRIZ?

Kowalick I quickly assimilated the contemporary version of TRIZ and ARIZ (the algorithm of invention) in five important ways:

    (1) Through Althshuller’s books;
    (2) by gathering and translating TRIZ information collected by our permanent staff in Russia;
    (3) by visiting Russia and spending time with members of the TRIZ community there;
    (4) through my personal friendship with Dr. Valery Tsourikov, CEO of the Invention Machine Corporation; and
    (5) by the use of invention software.

TRIZ Journal You are translating Russian books on TRIZ?

Kowalick Yes, we have twenty-one Russian TRIZ books, and we are in the midst of translating them at this time. This activity is a part of the TRIZ Institute. Dr. Ellen Domb and I just formed a translation consortium, through which member companies can share in the costs – and in the benefits – of this translation work. As you know, translating just one single book can be an expensive ordeal.

TRIZ Journal What have you been doing for the past seven years?

Kowalick I’ve been teaching TRIZ to executives from America’s top companies. I brief their corporate staffs on an in-company basis. I also present executive overview courses at Cal Tech; this is how over 100 American companies first heard about the breakthrough capabilities inherent in the TRIZ approach.

The payoffs realized by some of these American companies are remarkable. Of special note is how TRIZ caught on at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After a three-day, experiential TRIZ class taught by RLI, professional staff members at JPL were coming up with conceptual solutions to very difficult technical problems. Dr. Julian Blosiu is now the in-house TRIZ champion at JPL; he is spreading this approach throughout JPL’s technical community.


TRIZ Journal The American Supplier Institute once referred to you as “The leading American TRIZ practitioner,” and others have called you a “TRIZ master.” What can you say about the levels of TRIZ capability that practitioners can achieve?

Kowalick Altshuller is certainly a TRIZ master. I know two other TRIZ masters who are Russian. Personally, it doesn’t matter what titles anyone chooses to bestow upon me. I’m a consultant and a trainer. The bottom line for me is to satisfy my client corporations and their technical professionals.

TRIZ Journal But are you also a TRIZ master?

Kowalick A master rarely declares himself – except to his students.

TRIZ Journal TRIZ began in Russia – as you pointed out – and many Russians have been studying TRIZ for decades. Isn’t time a factor in determining the level of TRIZ expertise that a person can achieve?

Kowalick I’ll answer your question in a TRIZ manner: yes and no. A person can be “studying” TRIZ all his life, and not achieve a high level. On the other hand, it does take time to acquire knowledge and experience. Different persons learn at different rates.

A TRIZ master was a master before he ever began practicing TRIZ. Altshuller had what was required before he discovered TRIZ. He had the “right stuff.” The same is true for the other two Russian masters that I know. They have the right stuff! They are now living in the United States. There may be other TRIZ masters that I am not aware of, who are living outside of the United States.

TRIZ Journal Will you let us know who they are – these other Russian TRIZ masters who reside in the United States?

Kowalick They know who they are.


TRIZ Journal What are the different levels of TRIZ expertise?

Kowalick There is a joke that the levels go from “Impostor” to “Imitator” to “Practitioner” to “Expert” to “Master.” A TRIZ impostor can be someone who has had TRIZ training, has an advanced academic degree, is very good at analysis, and has a wonderful grasp of science and mathematics. Altshuller points out that “Invention is not analysis,” and I must agree.

More importantly, an impostor is someone who thinks he is far better than he really is. Some impostors claim that they are TRIZ experts, or even TRIZ masters. Through repetition, they even begin to believe what they are saying about themselves. They become offensive and insulting, sometimes resorting to legal intimidation – even against their customers. They can be identified in two ways: first, they declare themselves openly by making false claims; secondly, they become known by the poor “results” they produce for their unsuspecting clients. Already in the United States, some impostors have been unmasked and revealed by clients who have experienced setbacks from dealing with them.

TRIZ Journal What about a TRIZ master?

Kowalick A TRIZ master is also a master of humility. He does not get stuck in the “form” of the TRIZ approach, and he is open to any new ways that work better than the old ways. This is not always true for a master’s followers. TRIZ practitioners must be on guard to avoid the insidious “psychological inertia” connected with getting stuck in the form of the TRIZ approach itself.


TRIZ Journal You mentioned your study of “triads.” How does a triad differ from a Substance-Field, or S-Field?

Kowalick Some TRIZ practitioners have trouble working with S-Fields. Others have abandoned S-Fields, saying that they have little utility. Still others say that the idea of S-Fields is an incomplete idea.

TRIZ Journal In what way?

Kowalick If you recall, Altshuller teaches that a technical function exists only if it has three elements: for example, a function is “complete” if it is composed of two “substances” and a “field.” The two substances could be any objects, visible or invisible, large-scale or small-scale. A skyscraper could be a substance; so could a molecule, or an automobile, or a steering wheel. The field is said to provide the interaction between two substances. Typical fields are mechanical fields, rotational fields, thermal fields, nuclear fields, magnetic fields, chemical fields, optical fields, sonic fields, etc.

TRIZ Journal What is incomplete about this idea?

Kowalick Altshuller’s observation that three elements are required to create a function is brilliant, but he does not go far enough. The TRIZ solution-generating approaches do not tend to use fields to maximum advantage, in arriving at solutions.

TRIZ Journal How can this situation be improved?

Kowalick The idea behind “triads” is that three “objects” are required in order for a function to exist. These “objects” are like the “substances” defined by Altshuller.

TRIZ Journal Do you mean that there are no fields?

Kowalick Of course there are fields. But the reality is that a field “comes from” an object. There is an object behind every field. And it is often the case that two or more “fields” – as Altshuller defines the word – are associated with a particular function. The main point of a “triad” is that the necessary requirement for a function to exist is that it is the result of the action of three objects.

TRIZ Journal Can you give an example of a triad?

Kowalick Yes, but keep in mind that a triad is a function. Let’s take the situation called “sitting,” which involves a chair and a person. A major function associated with sitting is the “support” function. It describes a key interaction between the chair and the person: “Chair Supports Person.”

TRIZ Journal But you said that three objects are required for a function to exist. You mentioned only two objects: the chair and the person.

Kowalick That’s right. A third object is required. Otherwise the chair could not “support” the person. This is true, even if a person’s sitting posture matches the shape of the chair-seat, and even if the person is very close to the chair seat.

TRIZ Journal What is this third object?

Kowalick The earth is the third object. The earth is a large, round mass, and without it, the person and the chair cannot “come together” in a way that creates the function called “supports.” This function cannot occur in the same way, outside of the sphere of influence of the earth’s gravity. The supports function could happen on the planet mars, but then the third object in the function would be the large, round mass called “mars” – of course, there would be some harmful functions accompanying that situation!

TRIZ Journal Do you have other examples of triads?

Kowalick Yes. Every function – everything that happens – serves as an example of a triad. Consider what happens when an automobile is involved in a collision. There are at least three major “situations” to be considered.

One situation describes what happens to the car occupant in the collision, without the benefits of an air bag or seat belt. The function is a harmful one, described by the statement: “Occupant Strikes Car (interior surface).” The function “strikes” is made possible by three elements: Occupant, Car, and Impactor. The impactor significantly decelerates the car, bringing the occupant and the car interior surface together. This impactor could be a telephone pole, another car, a concrete embankment, etc.

The second situation describes the interaction, during a collision, between the air bag and an occupant – without the benefit of a seat belt. The primary function here is a useful one, described by the statement “Bag Protects Occupant.” The function “protects” is made possible by three objects: Bag, Occupant, and Air. Air is the third object. Without it, the occupant and the bag would not come together in the useful way that offers the occupant protection.

The third situation describes the interaction between the occupant and a seat belt during a collision. The primary function here is a useful one, described by the statement: “Belt Retards Occupant (from moving too fast).” The function “Retards” is made possible by three objects, but in this situation it is not as easy to describe what all of the objects are. The “operational zone” of the situation must be considered. One object of the triad is obviously the belt. The second object is a part of the occupant’s body-surface, against which the belt is supposed to transmit a force during the collision. The third object is the occupant’s body as a whole, which has a certain inertia. Without the occupant’s body as a whole, the belt and the surface of the occupant’s body would not come together in a useful way.


TRIZ Journal Where has this advanced work on TRIZ been going on?

Kowalick At the Leonardo da Vinci Institute, a division of RLI Incorporated. Our headquarters is in northern California.

TRIZ Journal Could you briefly describe the importance of triads? What else is going on at the Leonardo da Vinci Institute?

Kowalick I’ll respond to your first question first. Triads represents a universal law. All phenomena, all functions, all things that happen, can be described in terms of three objects. Furthermore, it is a necessary requirement that, for anything to happen, there has to be three objects coming together to create what happens.

Another way of describing this law is: “Any function can be decomposed into three objects.”

Triads is important because, as I intimated earlier, this approach makes problems easier to resolve at the highest levels.

TRIZ Journal What else is going on at the Leonardo da Vinci Institute?

Kowalick We have a project to explore another idea concerning triads: three objects forming a triad can come together, sequentially, in six different ways. We are looking into the implications of this.

We also have a project to look into the “decomposition” of a function from an entirely different point of view: some functions can be decomposed into “processes” that have several steps. We believe that the number of steps is definite, and that this is another universal law. This idea can be quite useful from a conceptual-design point of view.


TRIZ Journal You mentioned that you had been to Russia.

Kowalick Yes, at one point it seemed like the right time to travel to the source of TRIZ: the former Soviet Union. I had set the aim to travel to St. Petersburg, where much TRIZ activity was occurring.

TRIZ Journal Did you find conditions in Russia different from the U.S.A.?

Kowalick Of course. There are lots of differences. One large difference is cultural. It is hard to fully understand TRIZ without having some understanding of Russian culture, economy and politics, all of which are radically different from what American citizens experience in the U.S.A. On the other hand, people are people, and at its highest level, human psychology is no different in Russia than it is in the United States.

TRIZ Journal What do you remember from your last trip?

Kowalick We stayed at a “Communist” hotel. I saw that Russians seemed to have a “natural” acceptance for systems that fail. Some western observers have said that, in Russia, organizations simply do not work. Most of the time during our stay, there was no hot water. For several days there was no water at all. On the level of services, much of what is expected by citizens of countries in western nations, is unavailable to the average Russian citizen.

Government “services” provided to the people are inadequate by western standards. The concept of “free enterprise” is practically non-existent in Russia. I can’t see free enterprise ever happening in Russia on any appreciable scale.

Fortunately I myself do not expect very much in the area of “creature comforts.” Creature comforts are not what makes life interesting to me.

I asked a Russian friend – who had spent several years in the U.S.A. – for his observations on the differences between Russia and the United States. I’ll never forget his response.

He said, “I’ll answer that question in two ways: one answer for organizations, and one answer for people. In Russia, organizations just don’t work. In the U.S.A., they work quite well, and they provide citizens with many products and services. But the people situation is quite different. The Russians have more depth as people. In part, this is because of their struggles and because of the great adversities they had to live through on a daily basis. In contrast, Americans appear to be more shallow, with much less depth. Of course, there are always exceptions.” Russia and the Birth of TRIZ

TRIZ Journal It is from this Russian culture that TRIZ was born.

Kowalick Yes. TRIZ was born in a culture that included many constraints. It was a culture that did not permit free enterprise and freedom of movement. What can a person do under such circumstances? One answer is “Create great art, music and literature” – if and when these forms are allowed. Different periods of Russian history are noted for masterpieces from the field of literature and from the arts. Russia is also noted for the persecution of its artists and intellectuals.

“Thinking” is an activity practiced by the great “minds” in Russia. Thinking is free. It is one of the few occupations that cannot be prevented – either by a dictatorial government or by another person. It is from the realm of great thinking – brilliant thinking – that TRIZ was born. Henry Altshuller, the founder of TRIZ, is an exceptionally brilliant thinker. Curiously, great chess players have also emerged from this realm of great thinking.


TRIZ Journal What are your current activities?

Kowalick RLI conducts experiential TRIZ classes for technical professionals from the world’s best companies. Our client companies’ goal is rapid market capture. They achieve this by using TRIZ to rapidly conceive and develop next-generation products that are far better than existing products. These next-generation products offer far more value to customers.

TRIZ Journal What else are you engaged in?

Kowalick We’re conducting TRIZ Technology Forecasting for major U.S. companies. These companies want to know precisely “What are our next-generation products, and how can we get there fast?”

RLI also has a TRIZ certification program, in which we certify TRIZ practitioners at various levels. Some members of this program are instructors and consultants.


TRIZ Journal You mentioned teaching TRIZ to kids. How important is this?

Kowalick There’s no better way to rapidly teach creativity to young people – from sixth grade, through junior and senior high school, and all the way through university levels. National education has to be this nation’s biggest priority. The TRIZ approach raises the creative levels of young people by orders of magnitude.

TRIZ Journal How long have you been teaching TRIZ to elementary kids, and to junior and senior high schoolers?

Kowalick It’s been over two years now. We’re developing course materials and videos for gifted and talented children, and we’re also developing training for gifted and talented teachers.

These will become available to the public in a few years. I might say that I have been plagued with calls from parents who want to enroll their children in our program; unfortunately, we are not set up at this time to accommodate them. Perhaps with the right kind of financial backing, we can accelerate our TRIZ for young adults projects.


TRIZ Journal Where is TRIZ in the United States right now?

Kowalick The TRIZ approach for designing next-generation products is in its infancy in the United States. Those few companies who have discovered it, and who are successfully implementing it with proper and adequate training, have discovered a goldmine. These companies are guarding one of the best-kept secrets in corporate America: the seemingly unlimited power of TRIZ for rapidly achieving market success.

TRIZ Journal I want to thank you offering to participate in this interview. Do you have any parting words?

Kowalick Working with creativity is working with the miraculous. Creativity is about becoming an observer of the highest order – working above the level of the ordinary mind. I am grateful to be a part of this great quest.