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.”