The Anti-Hawthorne Effect

I recently participated in a great discussion with a group of Black Belts in my SSBB exam review class. We were talking aboutthe importance of “walking the process” to understand it. Several BBs had the experience of managers trying to create a process map in a back room somewhere – these managers swore that their map represented reality, until they actually were forced to go out onto the “shop floor” (however that translates to a particular environment) and had their “aha” moment.

One of the things we discussed was the so-called “Hawthorne” effect, which is generally used these days to describe the way workers will do their best, or the expected, while being observed for time studies. This abnormal performance may skew observational data when only a few workers are being observed over a short period of time.

However, one of the BBs pointed out that they had seen the reverse – workers slowing down or doing things inefficiently while they were being watched. Why would that happen?

It turns out that it hinged on the workers’ perceptions of why they were being watched. If they felt that their own performance was being rated, they tended to do their best to appear worthy of a possible raise, promotion, or other reward.

If, however, they felt that the management was doing time studies to try to increase productivity, or justify fewer employees, the workers tended to slow down so they wouldn’t be responsible for layoffs of themselves or others. In these cases, the workers assumed that the ultimate goal of the Six Sigma project was being done to reduce the number of employees, so why should they jeopardize their own jobs?

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I’d never run into the second scenario before, in my experience in healthcare. I wondered whether other Belts had seen different scenarios while making time studies or observations for their projects, and how it affected their “Measure” phase. I also wonder how to be sensitive to either effect when measuring for my next project.

Would any of you like to sharerelated experiencesfromprojects that you have been involved in?

Comments 11

  1. Taylor

    Do you think this is being caused by a lack of communication or inefficient/ineffective communcations between the black belts and the teams being observed? Perhaps they don’t properly understand how the data will be used, and why it’s important to gather correct data. Helping people understand how workers’ jobs will be or won’t be affected by the outcome is important too. I thought I remember GE having a policy the first few years that no people were to be eliminated, just moved to another part of the organization where their skills were needed — upon reducing work in any given area.

  2. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks for your comment, Taylor. I agree that communication is the key, not only from the Black Belts but also the Process Owners and Project Sponsors. Each organization probably has its own policy about workforce reductions or redeployment. I like the Lean concept of re-assigning 4 out of 5 positions no longer needed, and making the 5th position one of full-time process improvement focus.

  3. Abhijeet Sharma

    I agree that communication is an important part in dealing with Hawthorne effect but we should also keep in mind that the resistance to change at the bottom of organization is highest, also noise increases and corrupts the exact information being conveyed to the floor. One way to overcome this is to keep the process owners in loop and ask them to take initiatives to solve any doubts of their juniors proactively so as to eliminate any confusion. Organizations have diverse culture these days and process owners typically carry best level of understanding with their employees. Employees too carry a better comfort level with their leaders. Hence continuous interaction with process owners would definitely help in reducing the Hawthorne phenomenon.

  4. Martin

    The top three items that will help the actual worker understand what the effects of observations is 1. Communication, well before any process mapping takes place; 2. Communication, explaining what the intension of the observations and 3. Communication, explaining to them what was observed without belittling what their tasks are or how it is performed. In the company I’m currently working with, most of the workers have problems believing that their jobs will not be eliminated not matter what they are told. Since the middle managers and supervisors have not been forthcoming with information before, the workers don’t believe what is now being said. The Paul Harvey, communication is needed between supervisors and workers well before any observation data is taken.

  5. Sue Kozlowski

    Thanks to all for your comments. I agree with Abhijeet’s comments about the Process Owner being key to effective communication. Martin reminds us all of the 3C’s and their key role in project success. And Michael’s practice of having an operator leading the walk is wonderful – an idea that I will shamelessly steal. Kudos to you all for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

  6. Michael McBride

    Great post Sue. I think you hit on a solution in the opening paragraph when you emphasized the need to walk the process. I like to take this idea one step further and have an operator from the area being mapped lead the walk. I’ve found that if you can get someone from the area to join the team you can learn so much more than you can if you only have supervisors and managers on the team.

  7. Tom

    Six Sigma is a failed process that promotes anti team work. It amazes me that an organization would hire non revenue generating individuals to figure out how to make the revenue generating individuals work harder for less. Would it not make more sense to save the expense of the “black belts” and use that money to promote team building and bonuses for excelled productivity?

  8. Sue Kozlowski

    Hi Tom, I can respect your viewpoint if that reflects your experience of Six Sigma.

    In our organization the project team members were very positive about their involvement, and enjoyed finding ways to streamline their work to ensure a less stressful process. Please note that our goals did not include reducing FTEs or making people work harder for less. In fact, the projects promoted team building as we included all levels of stakeholders in the process, not just the usual directors and executives. And, the question of bonuses is very tricky – we don’t want to reward 110% "productivity" if that means people are free to ingore standard work and create their own work-arounds. Our goal is satisfaction of our patients – through standard work, for all patients everywhere in our system, every time. So by being patient (i.e. customer) focused, and rewarding service to the customer, we don’t get caught in the trap of rewarding individual "achievement" that may have been the result of sub-optimizing the process.

    Now, you can do Six Sigma badly just as you can do lean or PDCA badly; and I’ve seen some examples of that. My request to you is – don’t throw the baby out with the bath water! Take a look at Six Sigma and Lean programs that work well and have employee support – not just the programs that, as you say, hire non-revenue-generating individuals to make others work harder for less.

    Thanks for sharing your opinion,
    –Sue K.

  9. Henry Y

    Hello Everyone,

    I have had similar experiences with time studies at our site. I have heard many comments surrounding communication as being very important and I agree with this. However if the employees do not TRUST the leadership team it does not matter how much we communicate.

    At our site we have had to concentrate on building that trust level back up to where people will start accepting our communication.

  10. Sue Kozlowski

    I used to resent people who were "resistant to change" as having their heads in the sand. But I’m now more understanding – as you say, it’s a trust issue. How many promises have been made and not kept, or changes implemented without good planning, or arbitrary policy shifts, that impacted the workers? When anyone comes in and makes promises after that, why should people become enthusiastic?

    You hit the nail on the head – it’s a trust issue, which can only be addressed with the leaders showing their trust-worthiness, before we can proceed with effective communication and, eventually, positive team effort.

    Thanks for your post.

  11. Julie T

    Your post was fascinating. I am not involved in Six Sigma, but am studying it for a class. One thing really struck a chord with me. When I was working in a library, I always wanted to keep busy. I would find extra work to do when things slowed down and ask for work if I couldn’t find any. What amazed me was that my co-workers literally shunned me. Eventually they told me that they were afraid that if the managers thought there was too little work to do, people would be laid off – just what you said! Maybe they were right, I do not know. I just know that I go to work to work, and I do not know any other way to do things.

    Great post!

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