Quality Tools to Discover Solutions: Nine Windows

By Michael Cardus

Psychological inertia, or a lack of disposition for change, echoes in phrases like these:

  • "That is how we have always done it."
  • "We tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work."
  • "I am not paid to improve things, just to push this button."
  • "That will never work here."

When it comes to defeating psychological inertia, one of my favorite thought exercises comes from Genrich Altshuller, the creator of TRIZ, the theory of inventive problem solving. Describing a scenario in which a frying pan is attached to a dog’s tail, causing noise when the dog runs, he asks, "At what speed must the dog run to not hear the noise from the frying pan?" (1)

The more experience you have with being stuck in a mindset, the more you reinforce your own psychological inertia. You start to believe that solutions can’t be found and improvements can’t be made. Once your thinking freezes in place, the productive friction that can spark innovation and improvement ceases.

Often used in TRIZ, the nine windows tool can help you explore solutions to a problem in a context of past, present, and future. Exploring the solution as a system with time-space dimensions is vital in breaking psychological inertia.

How Nine Windows Breaks Inertia and Drives Solutions

In a 1998 article for The Triz Journal, James Kowalick offers a formal definition of psychological inertia:

The psychological meaning of the word "inertia" implies an indisposition to change — a certain "stuckness" due to human programming. It represents the inevitability of behaving in a certain way — the way that has been indelibly inscribed somewhere in the brain. It also represents the impossibility — as long as a person is guided by his habits — of ever behaving in a better way. (2)

Gordon Cameron identifies eight ”routine causes of psychological inertia”:

  1. Having a fixed vision (model) of the solution or the root cause.
  2. False assumptions (trusting the data).
  3. Specific terminology in a language that is a strong carrier of psychological inertia.
  4. Experience, expertise, and reliance upon previous results.
  5. Limited knowledge, hidden resources or mechanisms.
  6. Inflexibility (model worship), trying to prove a specific theory, stubbornness.
  7. Reusing the same strategy.
  8. Rushing to a solution, incomplete thinking. (3)

Each of the above causes can be ameliorated using the nine windows. This tool prompts you to explore a problem in the past and possible future at both the super-system and sub-system levels, instead of thinking about the problem only in terms of the present and at the system level. As you extend your thinking about the problem to view it in new and different contexts that are systemic and time-oriented, your capability to break free of psychological inertia and find solutions increases.

To use nine windows, write the problem and the current system for solutions in the center of a 3 x 3 matrix, as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1 – Nine windows matrix

Figure 1 - Nine Windows Matrix

Next, explore the problem at each of the three levels:

  • Super-system: External environment and components that the problem or system interacts or may interact with.
  • System: The problem or system that was created.
  • Sub-system: A component or parts of the problem or system.

Once you have explored the problem and the system in the present, move on to the past and the future. Explore all nine windows by asking:

  • Can we do something at the sub-system, system, or super-system level in advance to fix or avoid the problem or improve the system?
  • Can we do something at the sub-system, system, or super-system level in the future to fix or avoid the problem or improve the system?
  • Can we do something at the sub-system, system, or super-system level in the present to fix or avoid the problem or improve the system?


Nine windows can be a valuable planning tool for human systems issues like team building, personal development, and leadership. The example in Figure 2 demonstrates the use of nine windows in planning for safety improvement.

The item or activity being planned goes in the center box (system level). The past and the future are planning goals. Review each window on timescales best for achieving future solutions and ideal outcomes to make sure that the system, super-system, and sub-system will develop to achieve the expected results.

Figure 2 – Plan for safety improvement

  Past Present Future
Super-System Corporation where safety not a priority Corporation where message that safety is a priority has not gotten through Corporation where safety is a priority
System Employees take occasional risks to get the job done Ladder slipped and employee was injured in fall Injury rate will be unacceptable
Sub-System Management has criticized workers who stop production in the face of danger Workers remember the incidents, in spite of management’s assertion that safety is paramount Management has provided positive recognition for stopping production in the face of danger

This example uses multiple time lines, but you can choose the time line you want, selecting a specific date or leaving the dates open in the past and future. Once the nine windows plan is developed, the team can then plan and explore solutions to improve safety performance.

For example, the team should consider how to develop a culture where safety is a priority in action and language so employees know that it is a fundamental component of their work. One possibility is to create systems and real-time procedures to catch safety problems before they occur on the plant floor or at the work site. Another idea might be to develop training so that management includes safety in the evaluation of effectiveness and to develop the proper metrics for positive recognition for stopping unsafe production activities.

If safety problems continue, the team can begin to implement future solutions within the sub-system, system, and super-system to change or influence how the past, present, and future processes are utilized.

  • Can we do something at the sub-system, system, or super-system level in advance to fix the problem or improve the system?
  • Can we do something at the sub-system, system, or super-system level in the future to fix the problem or improve the system?
  • Can we do something at the sub-system, system, or super-system level in the present to fix the problem or improve the system?

Try nine windows. It takes a little practice, but you will find it valuable in exploring solutions for your organization, your team, and yourself.


  1. Altshuller, Genrich. Innovation Algorithm: TRIZ, systematic innovation and technical creativity. Worcester, MA:Technical Innovation Center, Inc., 1999, 122.
  2. Kowalick, James. "Psychological Inertia.” The TRIZ Journal, August 1998, http://www.triz-journal.com/archives/1998/08/c/index.htm.
  3. Cameron, Gordon. TRIZICS. N.p.: CreateSpace, 2010, 86.

Human Development & Leadership DivisionThis article first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of The Human Element, a member-benefit publication of the Human Development and Leadership Division.

About the Author
Michael Cardus is the principal consultant of Create-Learning Team Building & Leadership, Inc., www.create-learning.com. An ASQ member, he is education chair of the ASQ Human Development and Leadership Division, http://asq.org/hdl/.

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