Like a lot of management writers, I’ve been following the diversity campaigns of places like Starbucks, which recently closed for an afternoon of anti-bias training. As companies struggle with deep divisiveness and attempt to grapple with the issues of social, sexual, racial and religious differences, it is helpful to remember that there is a long history of using objects to help reduce workplace tensions.
Consider, for example the lowly spindle. The spindle is essentially a spike mounted to point upright; it was used by bookkeepers back in the day to impale bills, invoices and other crucial slips of paper so they’d be within easy reach for processing. But it also became popular during the 1950s in resorts and hotels in the American South, where massive kitchens fed thousands of guests during the high season.
It was hot in those kitchens, which only magnified the existing tensions between African-American men, who largely made up the cooking staff, and the overwhelmingly white female wait staff. The cooks naturally resented having to take orders—usually shouted, imperiously—from their more privileged front-of-the-house counterparts, and the friction between the two groups often led to mutual blaming, sabotage, overall rancor and deliberate slowdowns in production.
But the spindle gave everyone some measure of control. The cooks saw the orders stacked in front of them and could prioritize their actions. The waitresses no longer had to yell their orders into the sweltering kitchens. And the managers could oversee the line without having to constantly mediate between the two.
Orders were placed in real time and if there was a problem, there was an artifact—the check on the spindle—that allowed for the cook and the waitress to work together to solve problems. As a result, the waitresses didn’t end up crying, the cooks didn’t get frustrated and the managers didn’t have to fire people on the spot.
Lionized by the sociologist William F. Whyte, who observed its powerful effect in kitchens in and around Chicago, the device was further immortalized in a classic 1962 article in the Harvard Business Review in which the formidable management journal gushed, “The spindle markedly alters the emotional relationship and redirects the learning process.”
Today the spindle has been digitized and remodeled and now hangs as a screen in every fast food outlet in the country—usually viewable from the kitchen or over the espresso maker. In both its old and new forms, the spindle has much to teach us about understanding the way people behave as part of a system.
By transforming the menus, customers, waitresses and cooks in a restaurant into inputs, displays and feedback loops, the spindle was an introduction to modern systems modeling that would serve so many so well—not just in flipping hamburgers, but also in building airplanes, assembling satellites and, yes, making lattes more efficiently.
These systems aren’t a magical solution to economic and social problems, and in the case of the spindle, it reduced tensions and increased efficiency by making it possible for mutually suspicious groups to avoid interacting, not to interact more harmoniously. But by dialing back anger and hostility, it was nevertheless a step in the right direction.