Performance Management Blog

Can you IMPROVE a Square Wheel?
Leaders are often too busy working to listen to new ideas for improvement

A casual note in Slack to me from our marketing guy Amit got me thinking, so I responded and then felt I should write a blog about it. I had shared an old LEGO style, Too Busy to Improve image with him with a note that we want to change this to our new Divya illustration style.

Amit said, “…most times it’s only because we don’t know how to work them smoothly.” (referring to the Square Wheels on the wagon)

And my immediate response was, “Nah. The Square Wheels always need to be replaced with better ones. BUT, sometimes we see organizations implement Triangular Wheels because they can measure the improvement — “one less bump per revolution.” Square Wheels cannot be made into round ones. Yet the Round Wheels really are everywhere. Customers have them, workers have them, supervisors have them, consultants should get them from the three previous groups. Senior Leadership seldom has really good ones…”

So, my response got me thinking: maybe I might clarify my thinking about improvement and engagement and innovation.

Square Wheels® are simply things that do not work smoothly. We show the image of the wagon and ask people for their thoughts on how this might represent how things work in most organizations. Results from asking are simply amazing. People project their beliefs onto this “Organization Ink Blot Test*” and you get a pretty amazing number of thoughts about issues of systems and processes, innovation, leadership, culture, and similar. A few people make funny comments like, “We’re not like that. We push our wagon uphill in the mud!”

Square Wheels image of how organiztions really work

Then, the next phase of the engagement is to ask the participants, “What are some Square Wheels that we might want to address” and let them discuss the things that do not work smoothly from their perceptions. These discussions are amazing, in that some of the ideas represent really good organizational improvement ideas and some represent only minor and easy to implement changes. Some are systems and process improvement thoughts and many are problems that have already been solved by top performers, the Best Practice kinds of things.

People have real and well-considered ideas in many cases. And everyone engages and offers their thoughts. A few things are seen as problems by an individual or two but those do not generate traction and the lack of consensus peer support for them tends to make them go away in the proposer’s mind (which can be really helpful to the team!).

And because the ideas are generated in group discussion, the active involvement serves to generate engagement and the cognitive dissonance that because there are Square Wheels, there must be some ROUND Wheels out there to address them. Too often, they start solving a Square Wheel problem before they have even finished the discussion of possibilities.

As to “fixing” a Square Wheel, I think that is not a functional possibility. Square Wheels can generate new ideas for implementing improvement but trying to fix an existing problem is not as effective as looking at a variety of possible solutions. Too often, we jump in to fix something without considering other possibilities.

Let me complete this post with another relevant thought. In a John LeCarre novel, he wrote, “A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” And I think that is right. The people who have hands-on experience generally have a good sense of reality. While they view things from the back of the wagon and they may not have great overall perspective, they DO have a sense of what is happening in reality. I contrast this with the reality of isolation of the more senior managers, who may see things from the Big Picture much better, but they do NOT know the specifics and the details of how things work. Two things happen:

One is the reality of the long rope:

And another is that they may measure their impacts without considering all of the ramifications of their solution. I call that basic problem two different things, “The Cost of Human Capital” and  “One Less Bump per Revolution.” We can easily make changes that have significant negative impacts on people and we can always measure the wrong thing…

I hope that you have found this interesting and I am looking forward to updating this post with our new illustrations, which are powerful tools that can be used in zoom conversations to generate more active involvement, engagement and motivation to address some of the things that can be changed and improved in most organizations.

For the FUN of It!

Scott Simmerman, Ph.D., CPF, CPT – “The Square Wheels Guy”
Managing Partner, Performance Management Company – 864-292-8700
1520 S McElhaney Road, Greer SC  29651    USA
Scott@SquareWheels.com
SquareWheelsGuy (Skype)

Our new VIRTUAL version of our team building game is now available for demonstrations and developmental partnerships.

See a 2-minute video here:    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cE6gDtZymwk

* This is also know as a Rorschach Test, more formally…

Square Wheels® is a registered trademark of Performance Management Company.
© – All illustrations copyright Performance Management Company, 1993 – 2022

Dr. Scott Simmerman

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant, earning CPT and CPF credentials. -- You can reach Scott at scott@squarewheels.com and a detailed profile is here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/scottsimmerman/ -- Scott is the original designer of The Search for The Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine teambuilding game and the Square Wheels® images for organizational development.

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