How to overcome the Hawthorne Effect

Everyone wants to get better at what they do, so the process improvement movement has gained plenty of justifiable momentum over the last decade or so.  Recent research has suggested however that many companies do not get the benefits they had hoped for when they instigated a process improvement drive, with a major obstacle being the failure to establish a clear ROI from the outset.

An essential element of creating your process ROI is highlighting existing processes that could be improved (and measured), and then benchmarking those processes to see where you’re currently at.  You then look at ways you can improve those processes, at which point of course you should measure your progress so you can see how you’re doing, whilst also measuring your ROI.  It’s at this stage that you could potentially fall fowl of the Hawthorne Effect.

The Hawthorne Effect was coined after an experiment at the Hawthorne Works in Chicago.  The experiment found that productivity improved regardless of what changes were made.  Workers would perform better when the factory was made brighter, but they would also perform better when it was made dimmer.  The change itself seemed to be ensuring a short-term rise in productivity, regardless of whether the change actually had long term benefits.

So how can you avoid the Hawthorne Effect?

As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, the problem with the Hawthorne Effect is that the gains are only short-term, so the obvious solution is to ensure that you’re monitoring performance frequently to ensure that any changes have legs.  This is relatively easy to do if you’re driving the change project as a salaried member of staff.  If you’re a consultant however it becomes a bit trickier.

If you follow these tips however you should be ok.

Tip 1 – Make sure you take a long-term approach.  You’re measuring how changes to process impact productivity, so the obvious step is to extend the timeline of the project to request that changes are maintained over a longer period of time.  Make sure that remuneration is framed in those terms.

Tip 2 – Be discreet in your observations.  It is reasonably well known that our behaviours are not always normal when we are being observed.  Some employees might want to try their best to make themselves appear good, whilst others will slacken off to create a low benchmark level.

Tip 3 – Communicate clearly the WIIFM.  Whilst it is still probable that behaviour might change, the process will be much more realistic if you communicate clearly from the beginning why you are doing this, and more importantly What’s In It For Me.  If employees think you are trying to be more efficient in order to lay off staff then it seems unlikely you’ll get a true reflection of how people work.  The same is true if people think you will just be asking them to work harder for no extra money.  If you can communicate how this will benefit them however it will show through in your results.

These three tips should help you to overcome the Hawthorne Effect and ensure that your process improvement efforts are both accurate and effective.

Adi Gaskell is Head of Online at the Process Excellence Network.


About Adi Gaskell

I'm an old school liberal with a love of self organising systems. I hold a masters degree in IT, specializing in artificial intelligence and am an experienced community builder who is currently online marketing manager for IQPC. I specialize in community cultivation and using social media to create social organisations. I have written on this topic for publications such as HRMToday, Professional Manager, Business Works and the Chartered Management Institute, as well as being a regular on the UK speaker circuit talking about the power of social media. Specialties Social media, community building, knowledge management, social organisations, blogging, SEO, web 2.0, copy writing, PPC, Affiliate marketing, branding, html, email marketing.

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