Reinvent the Wheel, but Please, Leave My Axle Alone

I think everyone can agree that, at present, the best way to move something from one place to another is not to carry it or lift it to great heights, but rather roll the object on wheels (represented in business as business units). Of course this might change with the advent of teleportation or some other principal that we have not even conceptualized, but for now we have rolling objects on wheels.

In my last blog I suggested that it is okay to reinvent the wheel. After all, the wheel is not that difficult to invent; it’s the wheel and axle concept that provides the greatest challenge. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s use our Second Life teleport and travel back to the Bronze Age and the invention of the wheel and axle.

The wheel was not a difficult thing to conceive; it’s just a round object that rolls in a given direction. The use of the wheel for practical purposes, however,  was the tricky and difficult part. The “stroke of brilliance was the wheel-and-axle concept”, says David Anthony, a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College. “But then making it was also difficult”.

There are several concepts to the wheel and axle that make it such a complex system: the ends of the axle have to be perfect, as do the holes in the center of the wheels; otherwise there will be too much friction to turn the wheels. Additionally, the axles have to fit to be free to rotate – it cannot fit too tightly or too loosely. Finally, the success of the entire structure is dependent on the size of the axle, or there will be too much friction to support the load. Because of these complexities, the wheel and axel system cannot be developed in phases. It is an all-or-nothing structure.

Let’s take a closer look:

The basic principle to understand the operation of the wheel and axle is work and tension. Let’s see how this fits into our business model with the wheel being business units and the axle representing business processes. We have a clearly defined set of business goals, and we want to complete these goals using the least amount of energy necessary.

When energy is changed from one form to another we say we are doing work.

The actual equation is:

Change in potential energy = Work done = (mass) x (change in height) x (gravity)

The change in energy (work done) relies only on mass (the object), height (the distance accelerated against gravity) and gravity (the strength of the gravity). If we eliminate the change in height, in principle, no work needs to be done to move forward.

Note to self: Don’t carry projects forward by lifting them to great heights against gravity. If I move them in the same direction as the motion, the gravity of the project won’t be working against me.

Oh, but wait… It can’t be that simple. Won’t that create friction, and won’t that friction act horizontally, opposing the motion? True enough, the wheel won’t get rid of friction, but it will reduce it.

Work = force x distance

Reducing the distance will reduce the work. The smaller the axle, the smaller the distance moved by the wheel against the axle, and so the less the work.

Note to self:  the smaller the axle (i.e. the more refined the business process) between the wheels (business units) the less work required to meet my objectives.

So far this all sounds great but won’t the wheel and axle create tension if I continue to move an object forward in the same direction horizontally? Yes, the wheel and axle was really not intended to be used to roll things, but to work like a pulley: to change the direction of the tension. With the pulley system, the force of one section is redirected and the opposite force is applied to the other section.

Note to self: I cannot ignore tension that is created by the forward movement of a business objective. Instead, by redirecting the tension created when moving an object (business goal) by creating an opposing tension (solution), the amount of work is reduced; thereby getting me to my objectives without extending as much energy.

Time to teleport back to this century and learn from our Bronze Age ancestors. Changing the wheel is not difficult. I can continually refine and improve my wheel; however even the best wheel cannot move my business objective forward without a well designed wheel-and-axle concept. It’s a complex concept that cannot be developed in phases as this might create more work and tension. If my business processes are not working, I think that I won’t try to fix them one spoke or principle at a time. I’m going to take the time to look at the overall wheel-and-spoke structure.

So, go ahead and change your wheel all you want, but please leave my axle alone.

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