Case Studies: Reversal Technique – Vanishing Glassware!

HFL, the doping control laboratory at which Dave Hall (CEO of the Ideas Centre) was previously MD, had a monthly budget for replacement glassware of £2500. This was to replace glassware that was damaged by the transport of dirty equipment from the labs, across a car park, to the washing system (autoclave) in the maintenance area. A technician was used to manage this process – coming in at the end of each day and collecting all dirty glassware, then returning late evening to take it all back to the respective laboratories. Sometimes the glassware went back to the wrong labs, and then classified as “lost”. Sometimes it got chipped in transit – and had to be replaced.

There was a simple system in place to support this – through an arrangement with a local glassware manufacturer; if at the beginning of the day there was glassware damaged or missing, simply contact the local company, and it would be replaced, on site within an hour. Simple. This was the solution to the problem that had been in place for 38 years. It worked …. but was somewhat costly! Time for some creativity!!

Problem Owner: Laboratory Manager

Key Definition of Creativity:

Generation of ideas which are both novel and useful

Problem as Defined

How can we reduce spend on broken/replacement glassware?


This will score, say, +2 on the “scale of goodness”. We would like it to be +20, but there are mental blocks in the way. The challenge is to get around the blocks; read on …

Problem Exploration Technique

Boundary Examination

Problem As Understood

In what way might I guarantee the total elimination of any spend on broken/replacement glassware? (+20 on the goodness scale)



Note: the redefinition massively raises the bar, above the mental blockages, demanding breakthrough thinking if we are to find a real solution

Idea Generation Technique


Reversed problem statement (-20):

In what way might I guarantee that every single piece of glassware that goes for washing is both broken and then lost? (-20)



Intermediate Impossible – brainstorm solutions to the reversed problem, then pick the “best” (-20):



Employ Mrs Overall (ex. Acorn Antiques – Julie Walters character – served teas on a tray but couldn’t hold anything steady!) as the Technician. Get her to come in when everyone has gone home – middle of the night – fumbling around in the dark through the labs trying to guess what glassware is dirty. Give her a trolley for the glassware with a wobbly wheel – making sure the whole thing rattles, particularly as she goes over the car park. To make life more difficult, think “It’s a Knockout” – tie an elastic bungee to her as she tried to cross the car park, grease the path, and employ people to throw bucket of water at her as she tries to cross. Guaranteed chaos – broken glass everywhere, no chance of anything going back to its rightful lab. Perfect.


Characteristics that make this work (-20):




Reverse these characteristics (+20):




Now try and find a useful (and novel) idea with these new characteristics (+20):



It took us 10 minutes. 3 months later, at a cost of just £10k, small autoclaves were installed in every laboratory.

Journey from heaven? Easy peasy – nothing ever left the lab.

Total empathy? The people loading the dirty glassware were the same people that were using it the following day.

Impact? Immediately, cost of replacement glassware reduced from £2500 per month to <£100 per month. Cost? £10k; RIO? Over £2k pcm …. forever!

Obvious? In retrospect, yes. But for 38 years, very clever forensic scientists (>90 of them) had missed this innovation, simply because we had always done it the old way. The technique overcame a mental block, which then removes it … and the next effect is that the result looks obvious (…. in retrospect!!).