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Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: motion study pioneers.

Management practitioners today largely ignore Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, possibly because the principles of motion study they pioneered are now very unfashionable. Motion study entailed the detailed examination of the movements individual workers made in the process of carrying out their work. It was, however, just one of the concepts the Gilbreths developed. Through Frank's concerns that the efficiency of employees should be balanced by an economy of effort and a minimisation of stress, and Lillian's interest in the psychology of management, their work laid the foundations for the development of the modern concepts of job simplification, meaningful work standards and incentive wage plans.

Lives and careers

Frank B Gilbreth (1868-1924) began his career as a bricklayer, and by the age of 27 had worked his way up through the profession to found his own engineering consulting company, Gilbreth Inc. He had a particular interest in the development of man to his fullest potential through training, work methods and improving the working environment and tools, as well as through the creation of healthier working conditions. An adherent to the principles of scientific management, Frank was one of the first to find practical applications for it. Although he had disagreements with FW Taylor (mostly through Taylor claiming Frank's work as his own, and then implying that it was nothing new), Frank was an advocate of Taylor's methods and founded the "Society to Promote the Science of Management" (renamed the Taylor Society after Taylor's death).

Frank and Lillian married in 1904, and were the parents of 12 children (though one daughter died of diphtheria, aged five). Frank apparently informed Lillian that he wanted six sons and six daughters. In an interview with the New York Post in 1941, Lillian was quoted as asking him "How on earth could anybody have 12 children and continue a career?" To this, Frank replied "We teach management so we will have to practice it".

Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) was an inspirational woman. In what was, at the time, very much a man's world--particularly in the area of engineering consulting work which she entered with Frank--Lillian Gilbreth achieved an astounding amount. When she completed a thesis on the psychology of management, the University of California refused to award her a doctorate unless she returned to campus for a year's residency. This was impractical, so the family moved to the East Coast, where Lillian undertook a PhD at Brown University in `Applied Management', writing a new thesis entitled Some aspects of eliminating waste in teaching. Her PhD was finally awarded in 1915.

Lillian worked closely with Frank in Gilbreth Inc, as well as also running their household and bringing up their children. Within a few days of Frank's death in 1924, Lillian travelled to Europe to present a paper that he had intended to give at the International Management Conference in Prague. As his widow, Lillian continued the work of Gilbreth Inc through taking seminars on motion study and accepting those consulting jobs that she was not precluded from undertaking simply because she was female.

Often called the First Lady of Management, Lillian became the first woman member of both the Society of Industrial Engineers (1921) and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She was also the first, and to date only, female recipient of the Gilbreth Medal, the Gantt Gold Medal and the CIOS Gold Medal. In 1995, Lillian Gilbreth was included in the National Women's Hall of Fame in the United States.

Key theories

Work simplification

Work simplification was based on respect for the dignity of people and work and was developed by Frank Gilbreth from the age of seventeen, when he began work as a bricklayer. He documented the different ways that individuals laid bricks and from these observations he determined the most efficient way to carry out this task. For Frank, efficiency was of benefit both to the employer (through an increase in the number of bricks that any one bricklayer could lay), and also to the employee, through minimising the levels of effort and exertion required, and so reducing employees' tiredness and risks of injury. Through his extensive analysis of bricklaying methods, Frank pioneered a new system of laying bricks, and the use of this system increased output per worker from 1000 to 2700 bricks per day.

Another application of Frank's efficiency studies can be seen in operating theatres in hospitals around the world today. Prior to the efficiency study he carried out, surgeons would find all the instruments they needed for operations for themselves, wasting precious minutes as the patient lay on the table. Frank introduced the procedure of a nurse assisting the surgeon by passing instruments into an open hand, as they were required.

Frank took his efficiency systems very seriously, even at home. In Cheaper by the dozen, it is stated that he used two shaving brushes to lather his face in order to save 17 seconds on his shaving time; he abandoned attempts to shave with two razors, however, as while saving 44 seconds this also led him to have to spend an extra two minutes bandaging his cuts.

The Gilbreths' children were not exempt from their parents' efficiency methods, either. They were all given their own tasks and became individually responsible for duties such as buying the family's birthday presents or being the chairperson of the house budget committee.


In their study of hand movements, the Gilbreths found that terms such as "move hand" were too general to allow detailed analysis. They split hand movements into 17 basic units of motion that could then, through various combinations, form the hand movements being monitored. These units were known collectively as "therbligs"--Gilbreth spelled backwards, with the `th' transposed.


In the course of their motion study work, the Gilbreths used photograps to record and then analyse workers' movements. To aid in the clear analysis of their films, they developed the microchronometer--a clock that could record time to 1/2000 of a second--which was placed in the area being photographed. This device is still sometimes used today. Process and flow charts

Around the time that the Gilbreths began working, Henry Gantt developed the ideas that grew into what came to be known as the `Gantt chart'--a system of recording the planning and controlling of work in progress. Frank and Lillian used a Gantt chart in their work and in their turn, they added process charts and flow diagrams. These new tools graphically demonstrated the constituent parts that need to be carried out to complete a task.

Psychology of management and personnel issues

The importance of employees' welfare was reflected throughout the work of both the Gilbreths, ranging from Frank's concern over the minimisation of employee fatigue and stress to their mutual interest in incentives, promotion and employee welfare. Although not the originator of the discipline of industrial psychology, Lillian Gilbreth's research for her doctoral thesis raised awareness of the importance of the human element in industry. Many publishers refused to publish a book by a woman on such a technical subject, but Psychology in the workplace was finally published in instalments by the Society of Industrial Engineers between 1912 and 1913. The Gilbreths' interest in industrial psychology continued throughout their lives and was demonstrated by Lillian's participation in various US government committees on subjects ranging from unemployment and war production to problems related to ageing and disability.

In perspective

The Gilbreths are largely unknown and uncelebrated in today's modern corporate world, which tends to minimise the importance of measurement minutiae and favours the space and thinking time needed for creativity and innovation. Earlier in the twentieth century, however, from the 1940s on, management writers such as Lyndall Urwick and Edward Brech had lionised the Gilbreths, along with Taylor and Fayol, as scientific management became the popular gospel.

As we move into the 21st century, any 'glory' for original time-and-motion work is largely assigned to Taylor, and the work of the Gilbreths is often forgotten or ignored. As the human relations school of management gained in momentum, with the Hawthorne studies and the work of motivational theorists such as McGregor, Maslow, Likert and Herzberg, people rather than processes slowly became the central pivot for many management thinkers.

The overwhelming influence of scientific management faded from the 1960s onwards. The work of the Gilbreths, however, combining the disciplines of both motion study and industrial pscychology, deserves to be recognised for its lasting contribution to management thought, and to the ways in which we work today.

Key references


Writings of the Gilbreths, William R Spriegel and Clark E Myers eds, Homewood, Il: Richard D Irwin, 1953

(A compendium of various books and papers by the Gilbreths including: Field system, Concrete system, Bricklaying system, Primer of scientific management, Motion study, Applied motion study, Motion study for the handicapped, Fatigue study, Psychology of management.)

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: partners for life, Edna Yost New York: American Society of Mechanical Engineers, 1949

Cheaper by the dozen, Frank B Gilbreth Jnr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey New York: Thomas Y Cromwell, 1948 (New edition: published by Yearling, September 2000)

Evolution of management thought, 3rd edition, Daniel Wren New York: John Wiley, 1987

Journal articles

Breaking the glass ceiling: lessons from a management pioneer, Thomas R Miller and Mary A Lemons SAM Advanced Manufacturing Journal, Winter, vol 68 no 1, 1998, pp 4-9

Internet sites

See also

Management Thinkers: F W Taylor; Henry Gantt
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Date:Dec 1, 2000
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