History of the Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect had its birth in research studies that were held in 1924 at the Hawthorne Plant where the Western Electric Company made telephone hardware for AT&T.  The experiments, designed to study worker productivity under different circumstances, uncovered what is now known as the Hawthorne Effect of human behavior. It was at this same time and place that many of the rudimentary principles of Six Sigma were also developing.

The goal of the experiment at the Hawthorne plant was to determine whether the employees would produce better under brighter or dimmer lights. The study was conducted by a group called The Committee on the Relation of Quality and Quantity of Illumination to Efficiency in the Industries. Early studies done on the subject had indicated a relationship between the two, and the experiments were carried out at the Hawthorne plant to confirm this.

The famous Hawthorne Effect was noticed after the initial studies. At first, it was noticed that the better lighting improved efficiency. For comparison, experiments were done to establish whether dim lights would also decrease efficiency. The expectation was that work productivity would go down.

Surprisingly, though, the workers were also more efficient when the lights were set on dim. In fact, over many hours of different lighting conditions, one thing was always the same. The workers always produced more when they were being observed. This phenomenon became known as the Hawthorne Effect.

At this very same Hawthorne plant in the very same year of 1924, there was a man named Walter Shewhart who was working on new concepts relating to quality control in the industries. He was the first to call for the use of statistical control charts to report and analyze common-cause and special-cause variations. Shewhart actually started many of the most important ideas of quality control, and his work was a great inspiration to the managers at Motorola when they first worked on the Six Sigma management method.

Shewhart also worked at this time with W Edward Deming, and the concept of continuous reevaluation and improvement was born in the Plan – Do – Study – Act cycle. The work to come out of the Hawthorne plant at that time was truly groundbreaking in terms of improving the effectiveness of managers there.

The ideas gained at Hawthorne have now spread throughout industry, and are still used today in modern Six Sigma tools and theory. The Hawthorne Effect is recognized now, and project managers learn how to use it to their advantage. Quality control has become a nearly universal concern among industry project managers. In the end, it was a very productive time at the Hawthorne plant, and we should be thankful for all of the ideas born there that are still in use today.