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The Hawthorne effect today

By Chris Porter

Executive Summary
More than eight decades after the initial experiments, the Hawthorne effect remains with us today. Technology and processes have advanced remarkably, but management still can apply techniques of psychological motivation to improve productivity, reduce defects and establish a culture for continuous improvement. Effective supervision can push employees to greater heights without the need for expensive technological solutions.

Many organizational behavior textbooks describe the productivity experiments known as the “Hawthorne studies.” The term actually refers to the name of the factory, Hawthorne Works, where the experiments were conducted. In the 1920s, the Western Electric Co. contracted a business consultant from Harvard University to lead the effort for conducting various hourly worker piece-rate productivity studies. In one study, they determined that the production floor environment could be influencing employee productivity, which resulted in the now famous illumination studies.

The experimenters who collected and analyzed the data determined that there appeared to be a correlation between the intensity of the lights and the impact on productivity. For instance, incrementally increasing the foot-candles of light intensity appeared to increase the productivity. However, the experimenters became puzzled when they turned the lights down and, to their astonishment, productivity still increased.

Realizing that the light levels may not have had any impact on the hourly output, the experimenters conducted interviews with the participants to determine the likely cause of the productivity increases. The interviews determined that the productivity increases were not a result of changes to light intensity. Instead, the workers noticed that they were being watched closely. Ultimately, since the workers had constant supervision and the process was being monitored actively, productivity increased.

Understanding that this phenomenon can be a key factor to breakthrough performance can yield a lot of value. The best part is that the principle can be applied in a similar approach to virtually every modern process. Management can apply psychological motivation techniques to modern processes to improve productivity, reduce defects and establish a culture for continuous improvement.

Background: Defect study

Company X is a processing facility that has experienced an increase in market share and needs to improve manufacturing processes to aid in their expansion efforts. The company has found that because it has multiple production lines that produce the same products, improvements made on one line can be replicated on the others, ultimately enhancing productivity of the entire department. However, since additional capacity is not possible at this time, the focus of the company’s efforts has been on decreasing the defect rate and improving hourly productivity.

These improvement efforts will have significant financial implications because the company will be able to produce more good quality product with the same amount of raw materials. In addition, as the company has grown, the product waste has grown as well. As a result, the company needs to reduce its defect rate to increase profitability even more.

Since the company’s goal was to lower its product defect rate, the project manager assembled a team and conducted a study to determine what contributed to these defects. At the beginning of the study, the project team decided to standardize data collection so that each production line and shift could be analyzed equally. Since historical data for the process was unavailable, a baseline study was conducted to set a benchmark for the initial defect level at final inspection.

After the baseline study was complete, the team continued to monitor the process closely for 30 days. During this time, the team found that the average defect rate decreased by nearly 1 percent. The variation between daily defect totals was reduced as well, establishing predictability and repeatability in the process. This information is noteworthy because the team was observing and collecting data, and no improvements had been made to the process. While the defect rate seemingly improved at the final inspection station, the project manager redirected the team to upstream processes to see if there were additional opportunities to reduce the variability of the end product. Therefore, the team focused its attention on collecting more data in processes that were further upstream in addition to collecting the defect rate data at the final inspection station.

During the third month, the project manager continued to monitor the defect rates at final inspection by collecting daily shift reports. The defect rates were compared to the previous two months to determine whether defect rates had continued to decrease. However, the project manager quickly determined that the improvements made in the second month were not sustained. In fact, the daily percentage of defects had increased over the baseline. Given that the only circumstance that had changed was the level of supervision, this quickly led the project manager to believe that the Hawthorne effect was having an impact in plant operations.

Hawthorne effect at work

It became evident early on in the study that the Hawthorne effect could be influencing the data. For example, prior to the study, production supervisors were unengaged in the process. In some cases, they were plagued with nonessential meetings that distracted them from their front-line activities on the production floor. More often, they believed that monitoring their hourly personnel from their offices was an acceptable substitute for production floor management. Therefore, during the first month of data collection the line workers observed that the project team was interested in what they were doing and seemed to become uneasy, questioning the team’s presence on the production floor.

Additionally, supervision was more noticeable during data collection because the team continually had to remind the line workers what the defects were as some of the workers were taking out good product and letting defects go through. It turns out that the hourly employees were modifying their behavior significantly when the team was on the production floor. As the weeks went on and the project team spent more time on the floor, the line workers seemed to begin to realize that management would be on the production floor more frequently. As a result, it appeared that the line workers began to establish a “norm” for supervised production and collectively determined the acceptable level of output.

As mentioned before, because it appeared that the project team could improve the final inspection station defect rate by addressing quality issues in prior process steps, the team went on to identify additional opportunities for improvement in other departments. This meant that a supervisory presence was nonexistent during the third month of data collection in the final processing area. It was during this time that the level of defects increased above the baseline. Figures 1-3 depict the first, second and third month’s daily defect rate, respectively. One can see a clear shift in the defect rates during the second month as compared to months one and three.

Data collected during the second and third month was analyzed and cross-referenced with the level of supervision on the production floor. This analysis, along with the fact that the team had made no real improvements to the process during the second month, allowed the project manager to conclude that the improvements were the result of the Hawthorne effect, not process change. That is, the project manager’s supervision during data collection was influencing the line workers’ actions. Thus, work performance improved and influenced the defect rate.

The team’s analysis showed that when the line workers recognized that supervisors were on the production floor, they were more likely to perform their job functions better. Since management was actively involved at this time, the line workers were more engaged in the inspection process, which led to the decrease in the defect rates. However, during the third month, supervision on the floor decreased, and no longer were the line workers modifying their behavior as a result of management scrutinizing the process. This led to the average daily defect rate shifting above the baseline, and the variation between the daily defect rates became more unpredictable.

Fixing the problem

Once the team realized that issues with defect rates could be attributed to a lack of supervision, all supervisors and senior management were notified of the findings. The team instructed the department supervisors to monitor their areas more closely, be actively involved, and coach their hourly employees on what the defect rates were and what was causing them. The team also stressed the importance of encouraging the employees to let supervisors know when high defect rates were occurring.

The supervisors were to make clear to the hourly personnel that they would not be punished for this because hiding the symptoms of the problem or attempting to cover them up would never allow for any improvements to be made. In essence, if no one knew there was an issue with the defect rate, then there would be no effort to correct it. These findings allowed management to learn about the improvements that could be made just by active management alone. As a result, supervisors are now on the floor every day motivating their employees to improve the process. Figure 4 shows the impact active supervision had on the defect rate in month four as compared to months one through three.

The impact

Once the production supervisors realized that there was no mystical reason for the change and that vast improvement was possible through active supervision, everyone was motivated to strive for improvement. Since supervisors now understood that the high defect rate was more about supervision than issues with mechanical equipment, they began coaching their hourly workers and discussing the issues with each other. By spreading the word about how simple management techniques could improve the culture of the organization, supervisors were able to get more out of their people. Consequently, the supervisors relearned that their presence was a simple but powerful tool.

To establish a deeper understanding of the impact the defects were having on the company, the supervisors were informed that a reduction in defects meant that the project could have a multimillion-dollar impact. Once everyone understood how much money the defects were costing the company, they had extra incentive to strive for improvement. It also encouraged them to look at the process in a new light. Realizing that small changes in the process steps could reap major rewards, the project team and supervisors were demonstrating that their efforts would be worth the time, energy and persistence required to ensure that the improvement gains were sustained.

Once the supervisors witnessed the positive effect their active involvement was having on the process, their enthusiasm skyrocketed. For the first time, being reminded of how productive the department was becoming and how it was leading to success became contagious. Everyone was thinking about new ways to improve. After the line workers understood that the production floor supervisors were there to promote improvement in the process, line workers and line leaders were offering more suggestions on how to improve the defect rate. For example, normal daily conversations had shifted from the current events to the line workers helping each other improve the process.

Line workers who were unsure about how to grade the product began asking hourly employees with more experience their opinions on whether a product should be considered defective. This led many workers to approach their supervisors and specifically ask to be retrained in order to improve their work methods. Line workers’ input spawned the initiative that greater emphasis be placed on the training of the hourly employees, especially at critical control points in the process. Additionally, new hires would be immersed in an extensive ramp-in program that would acclimate them to their work environment and allow them to have a greater understanding of the required job tasks. To aid in the creation of this program, a few line workers provided input on the topic of improving the understanding of a true defect.

Line workers also began taking it upon themselves to implement change. Specifically, line workers began inspecting the defect bin and determined that some of the product there actually was acceptable. Reworking the product had a significant impact because it showed that there were opportunities to regain some of the losses from the improper defects. Eventually, the product that was placed improperly in the defect bins diminished because of retraining.

Some line workers also spoke with their supervisor to explain that their workstations were too low in relation to the production line, leading to excess fatigue and decreased productivity. Line workers suggested that they could inspect the product better if their stations were adjustable to account for differences in the physical characteristics of each worker. Suggestions such as these were nonexistent prior to the revised supervision techniques. If the workers did have these ideas before, they were not relayed in a manner that would facilitate a change.

As a result of increased supervision and the increased positivity in the workplace, supervisors were leading with an open-minded and positive attitude and were coming up with creative ideas, making everyone want to be part of the team. Many improvements have occurred as a result of this study. The productivity improvements have been sustained, and the defect rate still is improving today. By stabilizing the process, more was learned, and actual process changes were implemented. This can be attributed to the fact that the line workers and supervisors now understand the importance of high productivity and its impact on the company.

The team is optimistic that productivity will continue to remain high and could increase even more given that line workers are more willing to share their issues and concerns with management. Line workers now feel that management is more likely to listen since they are working beside them on the production floor. However, the team also realizes that as time goes on the excitement may fade. Therefore, constant attention is given to bringing simple but powerfully effective tools to aid in continuous improvement efforts, such as encouraging friendly competition by posting production scorecards for all to see.

Putting it into practice

This study can be applied in any industry where managers are looking for more production efficiency out of their people. The findings show that any implementation strategy will work as long as management is involved and that many production issues can be addressed if managers are present. It is clear that improvements require leaders to be active participants.

If managers understand that when they watch their workers, behavior will modify accordingly, then managers will learn about simple strategies that improve productivity. The goal is not just to have a presence around workers but to make your presence count. That is, be a great leader, because great leaders get people to do things they did not know they could do. Great leaders make people aware of the important issues and encourage them to strive to achieve meaningful goals.

Great leaders make others aware of their own importance and how every individual is a piece of the puzzle to success. It is a supervisor’s responsibility to motivate others and fill them with excitement to do better. Without leadership, nothing gets accomplished.

Understanding the Hawthorne effect will work to a manager’s benefit because, as was the case with this study, people change their behavior based on supervision, which can influence the process for the better. If one understands simple facts about human nature and psychological motivators, getting everyone involved in the process becomes easy. Let your people know you are watching and then watch them succeed time and time again.

The Hawthorne effect and this study show that productivity issues can be improved by the simple act of managers being involved. The fact is, management has to manage actively. If not, managers are not taken seriously, and improvements are not likely to be made. Ultimately, the Hawthorne effect is about group norms. Over time, people will establish the rate for a fair day’s work. This is an important concept because it is possible to unfreeze the status quo. Once improvements have been made, refreezing the new culture will re-establish a new performance rate.

By understanding that the Hawthorne effect exists, it is possible to use the phenomenon to make real improvements. By establishing a culture with active supervision, everything becomes more team oriented and more can be accomplished. In many processes, simple changes that require no additional equipment or additional labor can reap major rewards. This can happen by encouraging and promoting continuous improvement efforts through real leadership. All continuous improvement begins with management. If leaders are not involved, culture change is not possible.

Chris Porter is a Six Sigma black belt who had experience in the automotive and steel industries prior to a continuous improvement role in the food processing industry. His B.S. in industrial engineering technology is from the University of Dayton, where he is now pursuing a master’s in engineering management with an emphasis on systems engineering and Six Sigma. His interests include project management, quality assurance techniques and capacity planning.

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