The Hawthorne Effect

by Colin Berkshire

One of the more interesting discoveries of the Bell System was the “Hawthorne effect”. 

The discovery was that the mere process of studying the efficiency of an organization will improve the efficiency of the organization.

One of the manufacturing facilities of Western Electric was the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois. This facility produced relays, which were a high volume component widely used by the Bell System during the era of electro-mechanical switching systems It was an ideal facility to study productivity improvements because the output was highly measurable.

Many things were experimented with, hoping that a magic bullet could be found to improve productivity. These included:

  • Giving various breaks during the day.
  • Providing food during the breaks
  • Shortening the work day
  • Varying the level of lighting in the factory.

The punch line turned out to be this:

Changing a variable usually increased productivity, even if the variable was just a change back to the original condition.

For example, when the level of lighting was increased, productivity similarly increased. Further increasing the level of lighting further increased productivity. But then, dimming lighting back down would still increase productivity. Changing the lighting back to the starting levels resulted in—you guessed it—and increase in productivity.

What was discovered was that the production staff was informed that productivity was being studied. Every change to the working environment resulted in an increase in productivity (although not necessarily a permanent increase.)

A more common sense conclusion might be: When people know they are being watched they will work harder. When they know management is paying attention, they will be more productive.