Nine Windows - Quality Tools to Discover Solutions
The nine windows technique is defined as a method for exploring issues and their potential impacts by examining the past, present, and future of both high-level areas and their related subsections. This technique is often used as a way to ensure companies change and evolve without relying on past tactics that might not work as well in the present world.
How Nine Windows Drives Solutions & Idea Creation
By Michael Cardus
A nine windows matrix or diagram is an ideal way to ensure that companies, teams, and individuals do not stop innovating or developing new ideas and methods for systems, services, and products. It helps separate a problem in space and time. Once the problem has been isolated, it helps in changing the parameters of the related objects based on condition, time, or environment, or all three.
Using the nine windows process and exploring a potential solution as a system with time-space dimensions can help break the psychological inertia associated with repeating the same actions and expecting the same results (e.g., “This is how we’ve always done things” and “Why bother changing things? We’ll only get the exact same results”).
In 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:
- Having a fixed vision (model) of the solution or the root cause.
- False assumptions (trusting the data).
- Specific terminology in a language that is a strong carrier of psychological inertia.
- Experience, expertise, and reliance upon previous results.
- Limited knowledge, hidden resources or mechanisms.
- Inflexibility (model worship), trying to prove a specific theory, stubbornness.
- Reusing the same strategy.
- Rushing to a solution, incomplete thinking. (3)
Each of the above causes can be improved using nine windows. This tool prompts organizations and teams to explore a problem in the past and possible future at both the super-system and subsystem levels, instead of thinking about the problem only in terms of the present and at the system level. As organizations and teams extend their thinking about the problem to view it in new and different contexts that are systemic and time-oriented, these groups are better able to break free of psychological inertia and find solutions increases.
How to Use Nine Windows
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
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
- Subsystem: A component or parts of the problem or system
To complete the System row, list what started the problem in the Past/System cell, and then list the goal—where the project will ideally end up after the solution—in the Future/System cell.
To complete the Super or Macro System row, first list everything one would do to prevent the current problem (in the environment that the system functions) in the Past/Super or Macro System cell. Next, list everything one can do to fix the problem going forward in Future/Super or Macro system cell.
Once the team has explored the problem and the system in the present, move on to the past and the future. To do so, list everything one could do in the past to prevent the problem in the Past/ Sub or Micro System cell. Then, list everything one can do in the future (if the problem still exists), in the Future/Sub or Micro System cell. Explore all nine windows by asking:
- Can the company or team do something at the sub-system, system, or super-system level in advance to fix or avoid the problem or improve the system?
- Can the company or team 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 the company or team 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 Example
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 suited for achieving future solutions and ideal outcomes to make sure that the system, super-system, and subsystem will develop to achieve the expected results.
|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|
|Subsystem||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 timelines, but companies and teams can choose the timeline they 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 subsystem, system, and super-system to change or influence how the past, present, and future processes are utilized.
What is TRIZ?
Nine windows is a tool often used in the theory of inventive problem solving (TRIZ). TRIZ is defined as a problem-solving analysis and forecasting tool developed by Genrich Altshuller, a Soviet inventor and science fiction writer, in the middle of the 20th century. Altshuller derived this tool from the study of patterns of invention in the global patent literature. It’s purpose is to provide a systematic approach to innovation by assuming that any given problem has already been solved.
TRIZ is unique due to its approach of “what a problem is.” Specifically, TRIZ faces all potential problems as a contradiction of two different situations that cannot be implemented commonly together. As a tool made by engineers for engineers, the 40 principles of TRIZ may appear to be industry oriented. However, they can be applied to the business sector or even everyday problems.
TRIZ can be carried out in three main steps:
- Define the problem and the expression of the contradiction in a clear and simple way.
- Approach the problem as a system and monitor all the interactions and the stakeholders that may exist while zooming in and out of the system within time. Nine windows is the most appropriate technique for such an analysis.
- Determine the most powerful principles applicable for the respective problem and easily to come up with innovative ideas for improving the strategy.
Michael Cardus is the principal consultant of Create-Learning Team Building & Leadership, Inc., www.create-learning.com. An ASQ member, he has served as education chair of the ASQ Human Development and Leadership Division.
- Altshuller, Genrich. Innovation Algorithm: TRIZ, systematic innovation and technical creativity. Worcester, MA:Technical Innovation Center, Inc., 1999, 122.
- Kowalick, James. "Psychological Inertia.” The TRIZ Journal, August 1998, https://triz-journal.com/psychological-inertia/.
- Cameron, Gordon. TRIZICS. N.p.: CreateSpace, 2010, 86.
Nine Windows & TRIZ Resources
Case study: Innovating Social Media Marketing Strategy via TRIZ (PDF)