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Paul Naysmith

Quality Insider

What Is the Hawthorne Effect?

And was it as scientific as Taylor’s scientific management?

Published: Thursday, October 24, 2013 - 16:35

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… well, 10 years ago in The Midlands of England, I was introduced to the “Hawthorne Effect.” I remember sitting in the Black Belt class being taught about improvement projects. The course tutor, a wise old man with absolutely no physical resemblance to Obi-Wan Kenobi but with the same voice as Alec Guinness, provided a stern warning that “your presence in the process may create the Hawthorne Effect during your project.”

Wow! My being there, right in the middle of the process, will create improvement. Excellent. I’ll just move into the workshop area and improvements will spontaneously happen. Heck, this Six Sigma stuff is easy. And then he went into a little more detail on the effect.

As I remember, in the 1920s and 1930s, somewhere in America land, there was a factory that produced things. A group of researchers used the factory to study what could increase productivity. They turned the lights up, and productivity improved. Being scientists, they then turned the lights down, and miraculously, the productivity did not decline as theorized. It went up. So the scientists repeated the same test for a further five years and each time saw an increase in productivity. Their conclusion was that having a lab-coat-wearing examiner standing to the side of a process will influence the personnel in the area, and as they are receiving attention, their productivity increases. I was taught that this phenomenon was called the Hawthorne Effect, after the scientist who discovered it.

I sort of liked the Hawthorne Effect. It seemed logical. As an improvement leader, I went on to spread the same message, as it was taught to me, until the quality of the knowledge I was presenting was questioned. I was in a Green Belt project review, and I remember explaining the Hawthorne Effect to the Green Belt, when BANG! He hit me with a Kung fu fist of knowledge and corrected me. The Hawthorne Effect was not named after its father; the name came from Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works, where the experiment was carried out.

At that point, I really should have gone back and done some more research on the topic. However, then and there, I held back teaching others this subject. I somehow lost the confidence in what had been taught to me.

A decade passed from that day in the Green Belt review, and I have rarely thought of the Hawthorne Effect. In my line of work I spend as much time as I can in the process, attempting to influence and improve it. My colleagues know this, as I’m usually standing there next to them, asking dumb questions and wearing retina-lacerating colored shirts. However, I need to make change, I can’t wait for it to happen, and I use the Hawthorne Effect to my advantage, ensuring that the improvements can be sustained. Well, at least I thought I was using it.

Recently, returning from a wonderful vacation in Canada, my family and I were making the long trip back from the airport to our home. On the radio was the BBC series More or Less with Tim Harford, a show that looks at numbers, statistics, and other fun stuff like that. This particular episode was on the Hawthorne Effect.1

I think I shrieked with surprise. It certainly caught Mrs. Naysmith’s attention, as I startled her from her nap. “What’s wrong, you oaf? You woke me up!” she blurted.

“Hawthorne Effect. Hawthorne Effect.” I sounded like I was at an ★NSYNC concert. (Don’t remember them? Don’t worry; no one else does, either.)

Although it was dark in the car, I could tell she was scowling. “Is it a boring quality thing?” is one of Mrs. N’s catchphrases, which she uses quite frequently. She could not have been more right. Except for the “boring” bit.

So we listened to the 10-minute radio show, which I thought was excellently written and produced. Afterwards, glowing with excitement, I wanted to learn more, because what I just heard pretty much threw all that I had previously learned about the Hawthorne Effect into the garbage pail.

The documentary helped me understand the Hawthorne Effect was a key management philosophy that has influenced contemporary business, even though until recently, none of the original research papers were known to exist. Yes, the scientists did change the lighting scheme for many years and much more. But, in short, what had started as an experiment, became, over time, some sort of interpretable myth in today’s modern business world.

The main thread through BBC's documentary was based on professors Steven D. Levitt’s and John A. List’s article, “Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments.”2  You may be familiar with Levitt of Freakonomics (William Morrow Paperbacks, 2009) fame, and List, one of the top 10 economists of the world. If not, I certainly recommend you read their paper.

As the wind and road noise joined the British and American accents from the speakers, List explained how they researched the Hawthorne Effect, eventually finding the original study papers believed to have been lost. Their article goes into detail about recovering this lost treasure. It explains the significance of their research, concluding that “this study returns to the very evidence that induced this contemporary wave of thought by examining new data that were presumed lost. Ironically, there is little evidence of the type of Hawthorne Effect widely attributed to these data when one subjects them to careful analysis. We do see evidence that workers, over a longer time horizon, appear to respond positively to experimentation.”

Well, this program certainly challenged my understanding of the Hawthorne Effect that I had learned (and practiced) so many years ago. So what was my lesson learned? It is not that my teacher was wrong (well, he was), but that we should always consider what we are learning. We should seek the original source of the information, which may teach us more about the topic than what has been passed down from generation to generation.

As Levitt and List put it, “Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the original Hawthorne experiments is the power of a good story. The mythology surrounding the Hawthorne experiments arose largely around absent careful data analysis, and has persisted for decades even in the face of strong evidence against it generated by [Richard] Franke and [James] Kaul (1978),3 and [Stephen] Jones (1992).4 While our research is probably no more likely than the previous papers to put an end to such myths, at a minimum it raises the costs of propagating these stories among those who are concerned with scientific accuracy.”

References

1. “More or Less: The Hawthorne Effect,” (BBC World Service, Oct. 13, 2013)

2. “Was There Really a Hawthorne Effect at the Hawthorne Plant? An Analysis of the Original Illumination Experiments,” by Steven D. Levitt and John A. List (American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 3, January 2011), 224–238

3. “The Hawthorne Experiments: First Statistical Interpretation,” by Richard Herbert Franke and James D. Kaul (American Sociological Review, 1978), 43(5): 623–43

4. “Was There a Hawthorne Effect?” by Stephen R. G. Jones (American Journal of Sociology, 1992), 98(3): 451–68

Discuss

About The Author

Paul Naysmith’s picture

Paul Naysmith

Paul Naysmith is the author of Business Management Tips From an Improvement Ninja and Business Management Tips From a Quality Punk. He’s also a Fellow and Chartered Quality Professional with the UK’s Chartered Quality Institute (CQI), and an honorary member of the South African Quality Institute (SAQI). Connect with him at www.paulnaysmith.com, or follow him on twitter @PNaysmith.

Those who have read Paul’s columns might be wondering why they haven’t heard from him in a while. After his stint working in the United States, he moved back to his homeland of Scotland, where he quickly found a new career in the medical-device industry; became a dad to his first child, Florence; and decided to restore a classic car back to its roadworthy glory. With the help of his current employer, he’s also started the first-of-its-kind quality apprenticeship scheme, which he hopes will become a pipeline for future improvement ninjas and quality punks.

Comments

how thorn effect

Whatever the above subject might mean, there's a growing claim that we don't need other heroes. Umberto Galimberti, an italian author, published in 2009 with Feltrinelli, a leading european publisher, his book titled "The Myths of our Time", that analyzes them and takes them down to reality. It's high time that scribblers look to masters like Einstein or Feynman, just to name a few; if not, let's call it with its name: quality gossip. 

Improvement

The person that told me about the Hawthorne effect circa 1984 explained that the act of paying attention to plant workers often results in improvement, but it is short-lived.  I was advised to keep this in mind when determining the effect of an implemented improvement and to follow up a month or two later to see if the improvement was sustained.  I've generally found the Hawthorne Effect (as I loosely defined it) is true in the very short run (hours to a few days), but it cannot be used for sustained process improvement. 

Hawthorn Effect

Alas, the Hawthorn Works (Corners of Cicero Ave and 22nd Street (Cermak) in Cicero/ Chicago, is now a shopping center, that also is falling on hard times. The clock tower and quality philosophy remains. It is the "mecca of quality. Shewhart and other quality gurus practised here. It covered the 4 corners of this area, and at one time employeed in excess of 40,000 workers, In addition to Shewhart, Dr Deming worked there and they both postulated much of what we know of modern quality philosophy and methods.

I only live 3 miles from there and visit often