Why is the Hawthorne Effect Nothing to Brag About or Hope For?

Let there be light!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.

Why not?

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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.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please scroll down to post a comment. Click here to be notified about posts via email. Learn more about Mark Graban’s speaking, writing, and consulting.

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an book titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

8 Comments on "Why is the Hawthorne Effect Nothing to Brag About or Hope For?"

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  1. Mark Graban

    I was talking last week with another consultant about what eventually became this blog post. This consultant, of course, understands the Hawthorne Effect, as a fellow Industrial Engineer.

    He said, “A lot of consultants have built a lucrative career on the Hawthorne Effect.”

  2. Jim Beswick

    The Hawthorne Effect is more about basic psychological principals. You can’t be sure how long a particular suggestion or modification in physical environment will work. Like mentioned in this article, keeping lights on will not work for long because it’s not the lights, it’s the suggestion that someone is caring for them. So, you need to be innovative in ways you can pass on subtle suggestions to employees.

  3. Rick Bohan says:

    Interesting. I’ve not heard anyone hope for the “Hawthorne Effect”. In fact, I’ve generally heard it as a pejorative, as in, “Yeah, we got some temporary change but it was just a Hawthorne Effect.” Of course, now it’s thought that there never was a “Hawthorne Effect”.

  4. Daryl Wirges via LinkedIn says:

    Thanks for the thoughts & reminder history lesson … I had the benefit of working with a senior consultant a few years ago that had done the early TQM work for Kodak, studied and developed 3P at Toyota and had actually spent time at the Western Electric plant in Hawthorne. Early versions of fishbone (from the MIT white paper on the subject). Great stories.

  5. Keith Dorricott via LinkedIn says:

    I think the Hawthorne Effect is rather similar to the Placebo Effect where a drug can appear to have a positive effect but it is actually due to other reasons (such as the extra attention given to the subject in a clinical trial). In clinical trials, this has to be controlled for by using a placebo or comparator. Definitely not something to hope for – it is a rather annoying effect that makes it more difficult to determine if the change you make has been effective.

  6. Kyle says:

    I think the Hawthorne Effect could be a sustainable change, and not something to be wary of. If you continue to have someone watch over the workers or whatever your watching you would find that the change continues. The original experiment had to do with lighting but the Mayo and Roethlisberger did not think that the lighting was the cause of the productivity increase. They are the ones that found out that being observed by someone and a person attitude contributed to productivity. Not to sound picky but, yes when the study was over the effect went away because nobody was observing the workers which is the whole basis of the study.

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