Forgive me for being a bit of an Industrial Engineering geek here in this post. After all, my bachelor’s degree is in Industrial Engineering, even though I sometimes get called “a healthcare guy” after focusing on healthcare for just about ten years now.
One of the things we learned about in our IE organizational psychology class was something called “the Hawthorne Effect.”
In the past few months, I can recall maybe three different occasions where somebody referred to the Hawthorne Effect in a positive light, as in:
“We’ll have to see if the data improves, maybe we’ll get the Hawthorne Effect.”
People have meant this in a positive light in the context of the flow of the conversations. I remember somebody almost bragging that the improvement in an area was due to the Hawthorne Effect.
I cringed… that’s not really anything to hope for.
I’ve had to remind people that Hawthorne is not really a positive thing.
As the history explains, the Hawthorne Works factory near Chicago (back in the early 20th century) showed higher productivity when the lighting was brightened in the factory. But, the effect faded after the study was over.
Researchers think the improved performance had nothing to do with the lighting, but was a result of workers feeling good that somebody was paying attention to them and trying to help.
The lesson of the Hawthorne Effect is NOT that you could sustain performance by continually futzing with the lights.
The Hawthorne Effect is a problem because it’s not a sustainable change. It’s only a short-term effect. In the original Hawthorne studies, productivity improved when the lights were dimmed… because again, somebody was paying attention to the workers and the situation.
We were taught, in my IE program at Northwestern, that the Hawthorne Effect was problematic. The problem is that you’ve probably taken some countermeasure that you think will help solve some problem or improve a situation. Thinking back to yesterday’s post on warning signs, we might post some signs about hand hygiene in a hospital and make a big fuss about this.
We might measure an increase in hand hygiene adherence and maybe see a reduction in infection rates. We might give credit to the signs… or it might be the pesky Hawthorne Effect.
When we “study and adjust” in the Plan-Do-Study-Adjust cycle, we have to be careful that we’re not drawing faulty conclusions from our countermeasure. Is the countermeasure really helping (which might be a sustained effect) or is it just Hawthorne laughing at us?
Either way, the Hawthorne Effect is real and it’s something to look out for and be wary of — not something to hope for.