Harvard Business School professors are at it again. Last week, I was incredulous about their research suggesting that maintaining "strategic inefficiencies" in a hospital is a savvy way to discourage physicians from ordering unnecessary tests. This week I'm gobsmacked by their research suggesting that decreasing observation of workers increases productivity. I'm sure that Bill Waddell will soon be fulminating about Harvard's ivory tower view more convincingly than I will. But in the meantime, check out what Professor Ethan Bernstein calls the Transparency Paradox: that watching your employees less closely at work might yield more transparency throughout the organization. In his studies at a global contract manufacturer's plant in Southern China, his team of researchers
were quietly shown 'better ways' of accomplishing tasks by their peers-a 'ton of little tricks' that 'kept production going' or enabled 'faster, easier, and/or safer production,'" he writes. "Then they were told 'whenever the [customers/managers/leaders] come around, don't do that, because they'll get mad.'"
The official company practices happened to be less effective than the tribal tricks of the trade—tricks that the employees hid from the higher-ups, thus thwarting the goal of learning by observing. Bernstein says that there was no ill-intent or cheating behind such hiding behavior, but merely a rational calculation about human behavior: Operators were hiding their freshest, most innovative techniques from management so as not to "bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things to others."
In the paper he recalls a worker telling [a research team member], "Even if we had the time to explain, and they had the time to listen, it wouldn't be as efficient as just solving the problem now and then discussing it later. Because there is so much variation, we need to fix first, explain later."
To be fair to Professor Bernstein, he points out that the workers did share ideas with their supervisors after testing and perfecting them:
"There was a pride in ownership leading to the desire to share," Bernstein says. "And so they did. But only after they had data to support their new approach."
But what's troubling about this study is the assumption that there's an innate and immutable human tendency inside any organization to hide work so as "not to bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things." Now I don't know anything about the organizational culture in this global contract manufacturer in China, but I do know that Toyota, Autoliv, Wiremold, Lantech, and hundreds of other companies have demonstrated that you can create a culture that prizes, rewards, and elevates the habit of sharing information and improving processes through constant application of the PDSA cycle.
Professor Bernstein goes on to explain that
On the manufacturing floor, the workers were trying to manage the attention of the managers. They knew that if they did something that looked weird, it would draw attention and, quite frankly, would disrupt their current work process. If they didn't look weird, then that wouldn't happen. And they knew that just for the sake of getting the production numbers, sometimes it would be good to attract attention and sometimes it wouldn't.
Professor Bernstein's research was particularly irritating to me because I'm in the middle of reading Jon Miller's excellent book, Creating a Kaizen Culture. Jon argues convincingly that the highest performing organizations avoid the implicit assumption that managers and employees are on different teams (at best) and antagonistic (at worst).
A culture that has as its raison d'etre human improvement doesn't need to shield workers from managers. When supervisors' and managers' primary function is the nurturing and development of front-line employees, there's no need to hide "for the sake of getting the production numbers."