Archive for June, 2009

The Hawthorne effect and MBWA

26th June 2009

Channel 4 have recently shown a short run of programmes ‘Undercover Boss’ under the familiar format of a manager turning up on the shop floor with a false identity to learn the truth about their business.  The programmes are sentimental and two dimensional, but the fundamental premise – that managers can only really discover what is going on in their business by assuming a disguise – is undermined by some findings from Steven Levitt and John List at the University of Chicago.

The Hawthorne effect describes the idea that subjects under observation change their behaviour because they know they are being watched and dates back to 1924 when America’s National Research Council sent two engineers to a large telephone parts factory – the Hawthorne plant near Chicago – to learn how changes in lighting effected productivity.  The researchers famously discovered that lower level lighting and improved lighting both had the effect of generating short-term improvements in work rate and attributed this perplexing result to their own presence.  Ever since, social scientists and thoughtful HR professionals tread carefully, aware that simply asking a question is enough to influence what people think and how they behave.  What Levitt and List have discovered through re-working the original data (long since thought to have been lost) is that the conclusion is not justifiable on the research and plenty of other factors might have influenced the changed behaviour that was witnessed.

We believed in the Hawthorne effect because it seems to make sense but intuitively acceptable ‘though it may be, it seems that Hawthorne can’t be proved and that takes us to another intuitively attractive idea – management by walking about (MBWA). The ‘technology of the obvious’ as Tom Peters called it is exactly what the managers in ‘Undercover Boss’ just don’t get.  Successful managers are close to their people and their work.  They are with them regularly enough that they see hear, touch and smell what’s going on and they don’t need a camera crew and a false identity to see where and what to improve.  Good managers have a good instinct for their business (tacit knowledge, if you prefer) because they spend time acquiring it.

Having watched the hapless managers in ‘Undercover Boss’ and squirmed with embarrassment at the production team’s mawkish reveal at the end of each show, the overwhelming feeling is of disappointment at the searingly obvious findings that they come up with and wonderment that they needed to be prompted by a TV producer to find them.

The best managers that I’ve worked with might never have heard of the Hawthorne effect or MBWA but what they know is that they positively effect productivity when they are watching people work and that they solve the problems that matter by being regularly out where the work gets done and not hiding in the office with a spreadsheet.