Seeing and being seen: Process innovation at work

We wrote, in an earlier post, about an experiment that showed that employee innovation improved when employees on an assembly line were hidden (by a privacy curtain) from constant higher-level managerial supervision. Does this mean that privacy is always best? Or does it depend? Are there cases when, rather than being curtained off, it would be better to open up and be more transparent?

In a recent series of real-world and online experiments, now using food service as an example, researchers Ryan W. Buell & Tami Kim of Harvard Business School and Chia-Jung Tsay of University College London pitted two possibilities against one other.

When a chef is preparing simple grilled food for a customer, in full view of the customer, maybe that seems to the chef that she is being monitored and this brings with it an undesirable defensiveness. Or — alternatively — does knowing who the food is being prepared for lead to an increased sense of the meaningfulness of the work and a greater sense of the value of the work being done?

To answer these and other questions, the researchers used an ingenious placement of iPads with videoconferencing software as silent “virtual windows” in a cafeteria. The tablets were set up in one of four configurations: (1) the chef could see the customer, but the customer couldn’t see the chef; (2) the customer could see the chef, but not vice-versa; (3) they mutually could see each other; or (4) neither could see the other.

When both the customer and the chef could see one another using the “virtual window,” customers were significantly more satisfied (22.2%) with their food, compared with baseline observations. And this customer satisfaction improvement was not accompanied by any slowdown in service; instead service speed tended to increase.

But this raises yet another question. Was the customer more satisfied because they received preferential treatment in how their food was prepared? To answer this, the researchers devised a new “sandwich purchasing” experiment. Customers who had just purchased a sandwich at a university dining room were offered a special opportunity to preorder online a custom-made sandwich for the next day.

When they arrived the next day, one-half of the participants (randomly assigned) who had chosen the preorder option were met by an experimenter who directly led them to the preordered sandwich storage area and gave them their order. The remaining participants were also met by an experimenter, but here they were asked to join a line and watch while the chef prepared sandwiches (although not their particular preordered sandwich) before they, too, were escorted to the sandwich cooler where they were given their preordered sandwich. In this case the customer could see the chef but the chef could not have influenced the quality of the sandwich because it had already been prepared before the customer had arrived.

Even though they had to wait, the participants who saw the chef at work perceived the sandwich-making service as significantly more valuable than those who retrieved their sandwiches directly.

These two real-world experiments suggest that process transparency can be beneficial in multiple ways. But both of these experiments involved students at a  university in the northeast United States — how generalizable might these results be? To address this issue, the investigators turned to a broader range of participants available via Amazon’s online Mechanical Turk.

Participants (including a subset from rural Kenya) were asked to watch a 2-minute video of a service interaction at a cafeteria sandwich counter. They were randomly assigned to watch one of three different videos. They saw: (1) a customer hand an order to a non-chef who then relayed it to the chef (here neither the chef nor the sandwich-making process were visible); (2) a customer hand the order directly to the chef who then made the sandwich out of view; or (3) a customer hand the order directly to the chef who then made the sandwich while in full view.

Participants who watched the third video, in which both the chef and process were in full view throughout, perceived more effort by the chef and appreciated the chef significantly more than either of the other groups. Using path analysis, the researchers found that observing the chef at work led to increased perceived effort, which was in turn associated with enhanced appreciation, which in turn led to higher perceived value.

In a follow-up Mechanical Turk experiment, the researchers offered the same set of encounters as above — except this time filmed from the point of view of the chef. Those who saw the two videos, from the chef’s perspective, interacting directly with a customer whether or not the customer saw the sandwich-making process, reported significantly higher intended effort and job satisfaction on the part of the chef, even though they also felt more monitored.

So what can we learn from this series of experiments, taken in conjunction with the earlier “privacy curtain experiments”?

Here are some thoughts:

  • there are sometimes subtle ways that our environments enter into our thinking and making
  • not one size fits all: the benefits for innovation of privacy and visibility are context-dependent
  • when we think of what fosters innovation we need to keep in mind that we are meaning-making, meaning-seeking beings
  • whereas privacy can promote experimentation, risk-taking, and improvisation, transparency can prevent over-abstraction by making visible, that is concretely real, tangible, and perceptible, who the work is for and who is doing the work, benefiting both.
  • process innovation comes in many forms including how, specifically, we are aware of one another. Or as the researchers Buell, Kim, & Chia-Jung Tsay conclude their paper: “In a culture where speed and automaticity often trump other values, we suggest that seeing and appreciating the people who help us, and allowing them to see us in return, can lead to experiences that are objectively better and more fulfilling for everyone involved.”

Creativity friendly environments: Two examples

What makes for a “creativity friendly” environment?

There is no single “one size fits all” answer… but here are some broader themes to think about. Let’s look at two recent examples through the lens of our iCASA framework.

(1) Shared learning and experimentation space

A very large Chinese factory that produced mobile phones had a massive open floor plan where the workers on the production lines and the supervisors were continually and readily seen. What would happen to production speed and quality if some of the lines were surrounded by a privacy curtain?

A field study with four production lines randomly chosen to be surrounded by such a curtain for several months found that the curtain increased improvisation, encouraged “productive deviance,” and led to higher productivity and quality. The comparative increase in team privacy afforded by the curtain allowed temporary, smaller issues to be solved locally through line-level learning and it promoted collective team knowledge.

Observations by embedded student researchers on the curtain-surrounded lines revealed that the workers actively switched roles to learn multiple tasks and enable team cross-support, fluid adaptation, experimentation, and learning.

The innovations that were observed “were a mix of preexisting and new ideas: some of these were ideas that were just waiting for an opportunity at experimentation, while others reflected novel learning on the line through the increased levels of experimentation the curtain enabled.’’ (Bernstein, 2012, p. 202)

The curtain allowed the line to collaborate and discuss new ideas and to iteratively test and try process improvements, arriving at successful prototypes before sharing them outside of their local idea landscape. It formed a “scrutiny-reduced” supportive making-and-finding environment where the workers and the line managers could adaptively and contextually experiment with an increased degree of autonomy.

—> For the research study, see Ethan S. Bernstein, The transparency paradox: A role for privacy in organizational learning and operational control, Administrative Science Quarterly, 57, 181–216. Also, see Bernstein’s, “The transparency trap”

(2) Cross-pollination at IKEA

IKEA’s product catalogs feature multi-color contemporary images of home furnishings in various natural looking settings. The company, though, was looking to move from its longstanding tradition of studio photography of its products to computer-generated images. Transitioning to computer-generated imagery would greatly reduce logistical and environmental costs because the many products would no longer need to be flown in and configured on site. Instead of physically creating multiple culturally specific settings, for example a typical Japanese kitchen, a German kitchen, and an American kitchen, computer-generated imagery would make such reconfigurations much simpler. But how could IKEA make this transition in a creativity-friendly way, while preserving catalog image quality and empowering employees throughout the change process?

The solution was simple and incisively creative: They started small scale, and then scaled up. After initial experimentation and demonstration of the feasibility of the computer-generated imagery process, all of IKEA’s studio photographers were required to learn to use the 3D computer generated process and vice versa. This in-depth cross-training extended the skills and understanding of both groups, and led to an increase in quality, with computer-generated images that were essentially indistinguishable from conventional photographs. There was a synergistic meeting of the two approaches to image making, and a fuller appreciation of the goals, aspirations, and constraints that each uniquely faced. The merging of techniques expanded and deepened everyone’s individual and shared idea landscapes and mental models. There was learning and unlearning at the same time.

—> For more background on the IKEA process, see: Kirsty Parkin, “Building 3D with IKEA”