The Hawthorne Effect on 5S

In the early 1920s and early 1930s in a small suburb of Chicago an Australian-born sociologist conducted some of the most famous series of experiments in industrial research. Elton Mayo would go on to become a professor of industrial research at Harvard University, but he will always be known for his work with The Hawthorne Effect. Years later, the effect still creates a stir of conversation and controversy in the industrial industry, especially those involved with lean methods. Good or bad, the Hawthorne Effect on 5S and other lean methods is worth a discussion.

the Hawthorne Effect on 5sThe Hawthorne Effect changed how people thought about work and productivity. For years ideas to improve an individual’s performance focused on the individual. Hawthorne moved the focus to the individual in a social context. It established how the performance of an employee is influenced by their surroundings and by the people that they are working with as much as their own innate abilities.

What the researchers found from the original study was that changes in physical conditions did not have an effect on workers’ productivity. The fact that someone actually cared about their workplace and the conditions they worked in had a much greater impact on the workers’ productivity levels, especially when working in groups.

One friend, one person who is truly understanding, who takes the trouble to listen to us as we consider our problems, can change our whole outlook on the work

-Elton Mayo

The Hawthorne Effect on 5S

Fast forward to today and the Hawthorne Effect is still a hot topic in the industrial world, especially with the rise in lead methods being adopted. The Hawthorne Effect on 5S in particular is one that I believe can still have a positive impact.

5S is a process that involves as we all know sorting, setting in order, shine, standardize and sustaining. When you add the Hawthorne Effect on 5S you essentially add a hidden element that continuously pushes for improvement. Sustaining 5S relies on several components, but more and more it seems that employees who take group ownership as well as receive continuous feedback and reinforcement are the ones having the most success in sustaining their 5S.

If an employee understands that management truly cares and is willing to observe their working conditions, then they are more likely to perform at a level that will continue to improve.

The only true way to provide continuous feedback and reinforcement is to observe workers as they work. As noted in other studies though, overtly watching over an employee can have a negative impact on their productivity. Instead, think of ways to covertly observe operations. You can put notices out that observations are going to take place at some point during the week, instead of having planned observation times. This keeps everyone on their toes and gives employees a higher comfort level to work in.

Possible outcomes of someone being openly observed

  • People Work Quicker: This is the most common outcome. The added stress of being observed makes an individual want to perform well. They go to greater lengths to impress and show their ability to perform. The result is less time being wasted and increased productivity, however not the normal work rate.
  • No Change: This would be the ideal outcome to access real working conditions. However, this is not the typical outcome. Most people are unable to avoid changing something while being watched.
  • Sandbagging: There are those who don’t want to set to high of a bar that they feel obligated to reach everyday. So while being observed they will slow their work and decrease their productivity levels in order to set minimal standards.

Creating ways around openly observing your employees is the key to overcoming these pitfalls. In the original studies the researchers openly watched the employees and interacted with them. They improved their lighting and treated them much better than they had been used to. For obvious reasons this produced the results that began this nearly century long conversation, while also opening the door to controversy.

Tips for success

It is possible for the Hawthorne Effect on 5S to be negative, but with the right approach it could also be the ticket to sustainment. The following are tips to creating a positive result from the Hawthorne Effect on 5S:

  • Don’t let employees know they’re being watched- Being openly spied on is a recipe for poor performance. Instead, post bulletins that announce upcoming observations within a specific time frame without giving specific times.
  • Continue to observe over time- Continuous improvement requires continuous work. A couple initial observations might help establish a good baseline to go off, but unless you are continuously monitoring improvement you have no idea what your level of improvement is.
  • Provide reinforcement and feedback- Your observation results are more than just data for management. Use the collected information to provide positive reinforcement and feedback for the employee to use. This has proven time and time again to be a key component of continuous improvement and higher productivity rates.
  • Improve conditions- The original experiments saw a rise in productivity by changing out the lighting to increase the brightness of the room. Use your observations to find possible ways you could improve the conditions of your staff. If an employee is struggling with a particular phase of 5S it might be because the conditions are at fault, rather than the employee.

The Hawthorne Effect on 5S and other lean methods is just another way for you to think critically about your current conditions and how you can improve them. This is not for everyone or every environment, everyone is different and has different needs. But if you think it could help, anything is always worth a try if done correctly.

So long as commerce specializes in business methods which take no account of human nature and social motives, so long may we expect strikes and sabotage to be the ordinary accompaniment of industry.

-Elton Mayo

Additional Resources