A few days ago, I posted an item about an article that Steve Levitt and John List recently published in which they said they found “lost” data on whichthe “Hawthorne Effect” was supposed to have been partly based. Levitt and List claimed that the data showed no such effect, but only an effect on productivity resulting from changes in the seasons.
Yesterday, however, I received the following interesting “comment” from Charles Wrege, who has been studying the Hawthorne experiments periodically for the last half-century. Because of its length and importance, I have decided (with Mr. Wrege’s permission) to move it out of the comments section and incorporate it into a “primary” posting here.
I look forward to other comments by those familiar with the story of the Hawthorne studies.
The long lost data on the Hawthorne illumination tests was uncovered by my wife (“B” Wrege) and myself 52 years ago in l957. the material Steve Levitt and John List have “discovered” are the few output records on the microfilms that Dr. Richard Franke wisely had made in l977. The original reports of all the tests, the charts, photographs and personal LOG of Charles E. Snow, the NRC investigator, are in collection 5167, Kheel Center for Labor-management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University.
This material reveals that there MIGHT have been a Hawthorne Effect in the interaction of Mr. Snow and the 16 operators in the test area as Snow had to collect output data 5 times a day to alter the mixed artificial and natural illumination to check on effects of fatigue and the effect on output. The necessary calculations and determination of the hourly incentive earnings resulted in close interaction. In French’s ORIGINAL coining of the term “Hawthorne effect” he said it was when the operators gained social status from the way they were treated by a person of higher social status. Snow’s close association with the operators gave them the name “Charlie’s Girls”.
The real reason for the increases in output were the manufacturing changes at Western Electric a year BEFORE the illumination tests, the effect of the 1923-1924 recession which resulted in less orders for relays, layoffs and with the remaining operators (including the 16 in the “E” type relay test group) only able to assemble a few different types of relays rather than 8-10 DIFFERENT relay types each day (Snow LOG, January 29, 1925). There was an average production rate of 55-58 relays per hour due to a piece rate of $1.00/100 relays, on two days (January 7 and March 11, l925) the output was 60 relays per hour due, perhaps, to the assembly of relays paying $1.10/100 relays.
Steve Levitt and John List have said the output was low on Saturday and Monday and attributed the Monday one (partly) to the introduction of a change in illumination intensity. This demonstrates the fallacy of relying only on output charts and not understanding REALITY. Mondays were the day the manufacturing requisitions had to be distributed to the operators and when the individual piece rate slips were prepared for the operators. there were 200 operators (including 16 “E” type relay operators and 7 “A” type relay operators). All this procedure made work start later on Monday, thus lower output. Output was lower on Saturday because on that day, unfamiliar relays, in small orders were assembled.
Steve Levitt and john List have also suggested that while Snow could change the artificial illumination intensities, he could not control the natural lighting and the operators knew this and that natural illumination may have been more important than artificial. This is a fallacy. Hawthorne, like all factories, schools, homes, streetcars (trams in England) had shades. In his LOG notes for March 4, l925 he records how he adjusted the window shades (as the day before) to reduce the sunlight to make the test area illumination more like the 6.5 foot-candles he was attempting to secure.
The authors apparently rely on the average illumination intensities given by Snow, but the actual intensities at the work bench level were the critical ones. Individual records of this are in Snow’s LOG of March 11, 1925 (the day ‘E” output was 60 relays per hour) the output the previous day was 55 relays per hour, but the illumination intensities which were supposed to be 33 foot-candles in department 6329 were only 19.1 foot-candles at a line voltage of 116 volts. On January 13, 1925, the output was 58 relays an hour, and while the illumination was supposed to be 25.5 foot candles it was actually 25.7 foot-candles at a line voltage of 117 volts. In short, you need more accurate data to gauge the lighting effect.
I am afraid we need more definitive data from Steve Levitt and John list before we can regard their work as a true account of what happened at Hawthorne.
Consulting production charts and submitting the figures found there will not reveal what actually happened. the Hawthorne Studies have been handled in a very “unscientific” way for too long. The very fact that the account of the illumination tests found in Roethlisberger & Dickson’s book Management and the Worker was apparently copied by them from a report written by Max Horwath of Hawthorne in 1929 (and preserved by Richard Franke’s efforts) and yet NO ONE ever thought to talk to Mr. Snow , the original investigator, reveals that scholars are too prone to believe a published account rather than hunt for the ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS. it is easier to use a published source (or the documents that someone else has preserved) than to hunt for the originals.
Chuck Wrege, June 11, 2009 firstname.lastname@example.org