General Electric, the major manufacturer of light bulbs, had preliminary evidence that better lighting of the work place improved worker productivity, but wanted to validate these findings to sell more light bulbs, especially to businesses. GE funded the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences to conduct an impartial study. AT&T's Western Electric Hawthorne plant located in Cicero, Illinois, was chosen as the laboratory. Beginning with this early test, the “Hawthorne Experiments” were a series of studies into worker productivity performed at the Cicero plant beginning in 1924 and ceasing in 1932.
Illumination Studies, 1924 -1927
The earliest experiment (1924) was conducted by the NRC with engineers from MIT. The study would end in 1927 with the NRC abandoning the project. The group examined the relationship between light intensity and worker efficiency. The hypothesis was that greater illumination would yield higher productivity. Two work groups of female employees were selected for “control” and “experimental” groups. By comparing the changes on worker productivity by manipulating lighting in the experimental group with the production of the control group, the researchers could validate and measure the impact of lighting. The study, however, failed to find any simple relationship as poor lighting and improved lighting seemed in increase productivity. Indeed, in the final stage, when the group pretended to increase lighting the worker group reported higher satisfaction.
The preliminary findings were that behavior is not merely physiological but also psychological. This was a break with the Scientific Management school that saw work productivity as “mechanical”, and led to the decision to learn more about worker behavior. George Pennock, Western Electric’s superintendent of inspection suggested that the reason for increased worker productivity was simply that the researchers interacted with the female employees; and, this was first time any one had shown an interest in the workers. Basically, the workers were trying to please the researchers by continuing to increase their output and report satisfaction in the study, no matter what the intervention was. Later, the phenomenon of a researcher corrupting an experiment simply by his presence would be termed the “Hawthorne effect”.
Relay Assembly Test Room Experiments, 1927-1929
The NRC started an experiment to probe the unexpected findings of the Illumination study but would depart in 1927, at which time Western Electric continued the project drawing on support from Harvard researchers. An experimental group was established of five young women from the Relay Assembly room of the plant. The experiments involved the manipulation of a number of factors, to include pay incentives, length of workday and workweek, and use of rest periods, to measure impact on productivity and fatigue. Again, the relationship between pay, incentives, rest, and working hours seemed to have little effect on productivity, even when the original, more demanding conditions were re-implemented.
Mica-Splitting Test group, 1928 – 1930
Disturbed by the inconclusive evidence that rewards and incentives improved worker performance, a second experiment was conducted to look only at this relationship using workers in the Mica-Splitting Room. In his experiment the workers’ piece wages were held constant while work conditions were varied. Productivity increased by about 15%. The researchers concluded that productivity was affected by non-pay considerations. Members of the research team began to develop the theory that social dynamics were the basis of worker performance.
Plant-wide Interview program, 1928-1931
As early findings indicated that concern for workers and willingness to listen impacted productivity, Western Electric implemented a plant-wide survey of employees to record...