THE RUBIK'S CUBE
A lesson, wrapped in a puzzle, shaped like a cube
I did it!
Today (4/4/22) is the first time I have ever solved the entire Rubik’s Cube on my own!
No help. No referencing YouTube, or diagrams or cheat sheets. I used these to practice, but today it was just me and the basic steps and concepts I challenged myself to learn when my cube was delivered on February 25. My actual goal was to solve the cube by March 25, but I took a week off of practicing while traveling, and February was a short month, so I’m giving myself credit for meeting my 1-month target.
Back in the early 80s, I’d see them in stores and on TV. “Ernõ Rubik, a professor from Budapest in Hungary, wanted to help his students understand three-dimensional problems” so in 1974, he created the first prototype of what he called the “Magic Cube” (Rubik’s, n.d.). Eventually it was marketed, with his name of course. I saw a few Rubik’s Cubes in real life. No one I knew could solve one, and I’d never seen one solved other than the last few twists on some commercial. There had to be some kind of trick to it. Either that or you had to be a super brain. Yup, magicians and incredibly focused, logical spatially-oriented geniuses – they could solve it. For the rest of us, it was just a curious distraction, or an instrument of eternal frustration.
On trips home from college in mid 80s, I noticed that my little sister had either purchased one, or received one as a gift; regardless, there was one in the house. It sat with the rest of the puzzle-type games and toys. It got moved every now and then. It was a great distraction if you were bored and needed something to do with your hands. And I could even make color shapes and patterns on one face, and sometimes even solve one face of the cube. That was the extent of my abilities.
Solving one face would seem to be 1/6th of the whole solution – after all there are only six sides, being a cube, so that just leaves five to go. But, as you probably know, as soon as you begin the process of solving another side, you disrupt the side you already solved. It needs to be a coordinated series of moves, or else progress on one side just destroys whatever progress has been made elsewhere. Thoughts of peeling off and replacing the colored stickers or dismantling and reassembling the cube start to look like the only viable options.
I was not aware of the lesson I was learning. A lesson that I would learn and relearn in various ways in different contexts over many years. A lesson about time, objects, groups of people, organizations, projects – just about everything. When I relearned the lesson in the context of Human Performance Improvement (HPI), it was in terms of “systematic” and “systemic” mindsets and practices. Let’s talk about systematic first.
Merriam-Webster defines “systematic” as “methodical in procedure or plan,”(“Definition of Systematic,” n.d.). Time and chronology dictate (absent a Star Trek-type time travel scenario) that events and actions may only occur before, after, or concurrent to other events and actions, moving forward in time. “The cart before the horse” is a common phrase used to illustrate that certain things must come before others, or else the desired outcome will not be achieved. In organizations and industries, there are processes, procedures, and systems which have been developed and refined over time to produce desired outcomes, as well and as efficiently as possible. The practice of HPI “is systematic in nature because a structured approach to performance improvement is favored above a random, unplanned, “gut-feel” approach” (Rothwell et al., 2018, pp. 8–9). Systems. Systems make sense.
Nothing and no one exists in total and complete isolation (outside of a Twilight Zone episode). So, while things are happening and actions are being taken in an orderly systematic fashion in one domain, there’s a very good chance that things may be changed, intentionally or not, for good or for bad, in another domain. Picture an old, comedic skit where the lady throws the dirty mop bucket water out of the side window – an expedient way to get rid of it – and douses the mailman walking on the adjacent sidewalk, who then comes around front to deliver the sopping wet mail to the same lady, who then chastises him about the soggy condition of her monthly housekeeping magazine. Just about everything we do is systemic, whether we think of it that way or not. Systemic means something that affects the body (“Systemic,” 2019) or the whole of a complex entity, like an organization – or a neighborhood with residents and postal delivery workers. “HPI is systemic as well as systematic; it incorporates aspects of the interconnectedness of an organization’s resources, and its administrative and operational functions (Rothwell et al., 2018, p. 9).
Systemic & Systematic
Wonder Twin Powers – ACTIVATE! [If you get that reference, we’re friends. Super friends in fact]
The International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) has established 10 universal standards for professional HPI practice. Standard #2 is to take a “Systemic View” (International Society for Performance Improvement [ISPI], n.d.). HPI professionals “identify the subsystems that make up the total organization. They look for and recognize that a change in one area will affect other areas.” They consider factors affecting workers, workplace, external work environment, culture, the market, the competition, society – any and everything that might alter the desired outcomes of any changes made to one area of the organizational operation. Yes, that’s a LOT to consider. Not everything will be important enough to warrant attention, and reciprocal changes may be needed in order to engineer the performance needed to produce the desired outcome.
HPI professionals “use their knowledge of systems theory and their consulting and communication skills to help clients recognize” (ISPI, n.d.):
- How functions are interdependent.
- That a change in one area or system will affect other systems.
- The relationship between internal practices and the marketplace and society.
- The difference between symptoms and causes.
- The impact of misalignment of goals and practices.
- How decisions and misalignment affect the ability to be competitive in the marketplace.
A systemic approach, or “systems thinking,” leads to better decisions, greater awareness of the implications of decisions before acting, and the respectful and professional consideration of others when making decisions (ISPI, n.d.).
Once the possible collateral consequences have been evaluated, an informed and systematic improvement process can commence. HPI professionals are guided by the last five of the 10 universal ISPI standards (ISPI, n.d.):
Standard 5: Determine Need or Opportunity
Standard 6: Determine Cause
Standard 7: Design Solutions including Implementation and Evaluation
Standard 8: Ensure Solutions’ Conformity and Feasibility
Standard 9: Implement Solutions
Standard 10: Evaluate Results and Impact
It is important to follow each standard, in order (5-10), without skipping or shortchanging any of the processes. It is not just HPI best practice, it invariably results in better organizational outcomes. Profit, safety, growth, influence, customer satisfaction – if you want improvement, this is the systematic path to follow.
The Rubik’s Cube Revisited
As it turns out, solving one face of the cube is not 1/6th of the whole solution. In itself, just solving one side in isolation doesn’t even contribute to the whole cube solution (in the method I learned). Solving the right side in the right way, with foresight to the necessary next systematic steps – that’s the key. The whole method is based on the systemic orientation and spatial relation of the pieces and their collective and independent movement. Solving the “bottom” side and adjacent bottom “layer” comes first. Then layer two, then the “top” surface and layer three. Done!
By systematically solving two sides and three layers, the systemic (whole) cube can be solved. If you do not consider the manner and extent of the disruption caused to the already-solved sections by each subsequent move to solve the next section, you’ve lost the battle. Incremental progress, and the systemic restoration of all solved sections before moving on to the next systematic step is a winning strategy.
No magic is needed. No luck is needed. No peeling off and replacing of colored stickers or dismantling and reassembling the cube. Have you ever heard of a successful organization (besides the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter) built and maintained on magic or luck?
There have though, been successful restructurings where people and processes are stripped from their place and put somewhere else (like stickers), or entire divisions are dismantled and reassembled differently. But these restructurings, when necessary, are expensive, disruptive, time consuming, and painful. They border on violating the “conformity” element of Standard #8 (above), so careful attention should be paid to Standards #5-7.
Organizational performance improvement issues are not Rubik’s Cubes. However, they can benefit from systemic and systematic HPI practices, and be solved in much the same manner. HPI professionals are the right people with the right knowledge and skills to solve performance puzzles. I’m one of them. And today, I solved a Rubik’s Cube for the very first time.
International Society for Performance Improvement. (n.d.). CPT performance standards. ISPI. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://ispi.org/page/CPTStandards
Rothwell, W. J., Hohne, C. K., & King, S. B. (2018). Human performance improvement: Building practitioner performance (3rd ed.) [PDF]. www.routledge.com/9781138237582
Rubik’s. (n.d.). Rubik’s. Our heritage. https://www.rubiks.com/en-us/about
Systematic. (2019). In Systematic. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/systematic
Systemic. (2019). In Systemic. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/systemic