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Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect originated from experiments at the Hawthorne Works, owned by Western Electric, in Cicero, Illinois in the first half of the 1900’s. While there were a variety of experiments, the most commonly referenced study was about illumination.

Researchers conducted a series of experiments to identify the optimal lighting levels in the workplace. Initial findings showed that increasing lighting levels resulted in productivity increases. The effects, however, were short-lived. Continued experiments showed that whenever lighting changed, either brighter or dimmer, there was an increase in productivity. This led to a series of further experiments over an extended period that looked at other factors affecting worker performance.

There is a bit of disagreement within the psychology field about the impact and meaning of the Hawthorne Effect in the initial experiments for a variety of reasons—small number of samples, lack of a control group, etc. Further experiments attempted to address these findings. While there are still many opinions about the study, it is clear that there was something going on in regards to worker productivity. Exactly what is happening is not as clear.

In regards to modern continuous improvement, the precise history or impact of the original experiments is not as important as is the need to recognize that the act of observing a process will influence the workers being watched.

Three things happen when a person is observed.

  1. People work faster. Most people seem to fall into this category. When being watched, people want to perform well. They try harder, put in a little extra effort, and productivity will often improve. They are also less likely to waste time, talk with co-workers, etc.
  2. People don’t change behaviors. This is the desired response, but it is also the least frequent outcome. Most people are unable to avoid changing how they work while being watched.
  3. People slow down. This is also known as sandbagging. Some people understand the implication of time observations. They recognize that the times that are recorded are the basis for developing standard work. If the numbers are ‘too good’, the standard will be hard to meet. Despite the negative connotation of the term ‘sandbagging’, there is some validity to this line of thought. Often, because time studies only peer through a small window of time, they may miss out on some of the day to day problems that people face. The timings may not be representative of the real conditions a person faces in his or her job, so the resulting productivity targets (based on standard work) may not match actual capabilities. Slowing down work offsets the lack of problems and the final pace will be more manageable to the operator.

There are some ways to counter the Hawthorne Effect.

The first is to not let people know they are being watched. While that may be a valid technique for a scientific study, in the business world it is generally bad for morale when people find out after the fact that they were spied upon. An alternative is that you can tell people that they will be watched within a set period of time. For example, tell them that one day in the next two weeks you will be observing them. In each method, though, the challenge is logistics. It is hard to watch people in the manner needed for improvement purposes without being noticed. The most common method of doing this is video, which presents a whole new set of barriers to overcome.

A second way to combat this is to observe for a long period. The Hawthorne effect is short-lived. People drift back to normal fairly quickly after a change. If a time study is done for several cycles, people tend to become accustomed to the observation and revert back to the norm. The first few observations are discarded using this method. Obviously, the downside is the time invested in this.


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