The Hawthorne experiments

1. The Fatigue Laborator y at Har vard

Western Electric served as the manufacturing arm of the Bell System for more than 100 years in the United States. It produced many of the breakthrough technologies developed by scientists at Bell Laboratories. Inside the Hawthorne works, more than 40,000 people designed, assembled and tested a wide variety of switchboards, cable and wire harnesses, relays, switching systems and other state-of-the-art tele- communications equipment. This was the plant chosen by General Electric for a series of experiments designed to help it sell more light bulbs to businesses. General Electric sought evidence that better lighting of the workplace improved worker productivity. GE funded the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study at AT&T’s Western Electric Hawthorne plant located in Cicero, Illinois. The research examined the relationship between light intensity and worker efficiency. The hypothesis was that greater illumination would yield higher productivity; in a derivation of ideas about scientific management they sought to find the one best level of illumination. Two work groups of female employees were selected as a control and an experimental group. By manipulating lighting in the experimental group and comparing worker productivity with that of the control group, the researchers thought that they would be able to validate and measure the impact of lighting. The study, however, failed to find any simple relationship, as both poor lighting and improved lighting seemed to increase pro- ductivity. Indeed, in the final stage, when the researchers pretended to increase lighting the worker group reported higher satisfaction.

George Pennock, Western Electric’s superintendent of inspection, suggested that perhaps the reason for increased worker productivity was simply the interaction between the researchers and the female employees, which was perhaps the first time anyone in authority had shown any positive interest in them. He thought that maybe the workers responded favorably to this interest by increasing their output and reporting satisfaction, irrespective of the changes they were being subjected to. He decided to invite researchers from Harvard to conduct investigations.

In 1927, Harvard created the Fatigue Laboratory, under the direction of L.J. Henderson, a chemist and physiologist, at the Harvard Business School. Fatigue was high on the research agenda not only because of the intensification of work that Taylorism had inspired but also because, during the First World War, the problem of tired workers had become the basis for a new intellectual movement. The work of the US Public Health Service during the war, and closely related work by the Committee on Industrial Fatigue, which had been set up to increase pro- ductivity in the face of the long hours deemed necessary for war readiness, had put industrial tiredness on the national agenda (Derickson 1994). Henderson, although a physiologist, was to hasten the shift from a physiological focus on the body to one that was more psychological by including Elton Mayo in the work of the Fatigue Laboratory. Labor turmoil contributed to a postwar reconceptual- ization of fatigue as students of industrial relations increasingly emphasized the psychology of fatigue as the outcome of the maladjustment of individual laborers to industrial reality. Henderson would contribute to the development of systems theory, influencing management theorists such as Chester Barnard (1938), and he was a founder member of the influential Pareto Circle at Harvard (Heyl 2002), to which Talcott Parsons also belonged. One of the early research projects that the Harvard Laboratory conducted in 1927 took over the work of the Hawthorne research project, the most significant – if flawed – finding of which was that infor- mal organization existed and it was this that motivated performance.

2. The body in the physical environment

There were four waves of subsequent research at the Hawthorne plant, each in a different location. The first was in the relay assembly room from 1927 to 1929. Hundreds of women worked in the relay assembly room where they assembled 40 different parts into the mechanical relays that were needed for telephone switch- ing. The assembly consisted of putting together a coil, an armature, contact springs and insulators in a fixture and securing the parts by means of four machine screws to form each relay unit. Each assembly took approximately one minute to complete. Under normal conditions with a 48-hour work week, including Saturdays, the assemblers produced 2,400 relays a week each. Six women were selected whose prior production rates were known. They were removed from the large assembly hall to a special test room with standard assembly benches, tools and equipment. The researchers wanted to test the effects of changes in length and frequency of rest periods and hours worked. The test room was separated from the main assembly department by a 10-foot-tall wooden partition. Temperature, humidity and light- ing conditions were controlled, and an observer in the room recorded events as they happened.

Five assemblers worked at the benches, while one woman procured and distrib-uted parts. The production rate was monitored as each completed relay was placed on a chute, activating an electric counting gate as it passed down. The women had no supervisor, but they increasingly assumed responsibility for their own work and were allowed to share in decisions about changes in their work. The experiments consisted of 23 changes in the working environment. For instance, rest breaks were added and maintained at various lengths and periods of time. Shorter workdays and elimination of Saturday hours were also tried. Output increased no matter how physical conditions were varied. In fact, even when conditions were returned to what they had been before, productivity remained 25 percent above its original value. Absenteeism was only a third of that in the main assembly room. Output averaged 3,000 relays a week per assembler. Physical changes appeared to have no effect on output rate. The relationship between pay, incentives, rest, and working hours had little effect on productivity, even when the original, more demanding conditions were reimplemented.

From 1928 to 1930, another experimental group was established whose work involved mica splitting. For this group the workers’ piece wages were held constant while work conditions were varied. The women were moved to a special test room where, unlike their cohorts, they received 10-minute rest breaks at 9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. After a brief decline in performance following the move, the women’s output increased by an average of 15 percent and remained at that level for the duration of the experiment. When they returned to their department, losing the rest periods, their output dropped back to the original rate. Since no other condi- tions had changed, the researchers attributed the increase in output to the benefi- cial effects of rest periods, not to the effect of the experiment itself.

A program of plant-wide interviews followed from 1928 to 1931. These recorded employee concerns and grievances, with 21,000 employees being interviewed. These data would support the research of the Harvard team for years and led them to con- clude that work improved when supervisors began to pay attention to employees, that work takes place in a social context in which work and non-work considerations are important, and that norms and groups matter to workers. The final stage of the research took place on the bank wiring observation group from 1931 to 1932. In this study 14 male workers had incentive pay introduced and were observed but nothing happened. The work group had established work norms defining how much work they should perform in a day and stuck to it, regardless of pay. This strengthened the anthropological interpretation that informal groups operated in the work environment and that these groups, the informal organization, managed behavior in the formal organization. The organization had a collective soul – constituted as an informal organization – which would later be conceptualized as a culture.

Source: Clegg Stewart, Courpasson David, Phillips Nelson X. (2006), Power and Organizations, SAGE Publications Ltd; 1st edition.

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