Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Frank GilbrethFrank Bunker Gilbreth (July 7, 1868, Fairfield, Maine – June 14, 1924, Montclair, New Jersey) was an early advocate of scientific management and a pioneer of motion study, and is perhaps best known as the father and central figure of Cheaper by the Dozen.


Gilbreth had no formal education beyond high school. He began as a bricklayer, became a building contractor, an inventor, and evolved into management engineer. He eventually became an occasional lecturer at Purdue University, which houses his papers. He married Lillian Moller Gilbreth in 1904; they had 12 children, 11 of whom survived him. Gilbreth died suddenly of heart failure at age 55. Lillian outlived him by 48 years.


Gilbreth discovered his vocation when, as a young building contractor, he sought ways to make bricklaying (his first trade) faster and easier. This grew into a collaboration with his eventual spouse, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, that studied the work habits of manufacturing and clerical employees in all sorts of industries to find ways to increase output and make their jobs easier. He and Lillian founded a management consulting firm, Gilbreth, Inc., focusing on such endeavors.


According to Claude George (1968), Gilbreth reduced all motions of the hand into some combination of 18 basic motions. These included grasp, transport loaded, and hold. Gilbreth named the motions therbligs, "Gilbreth" spelled backwards with the transposed. He used a motion picture camera that was calibrated in fractions of minutes to time the smallest of motions in workers.


George noted that the Gilbreths were, above all, scientists who sought to teach managers that all aspects of the workplace should be constantly questioned, and improvements constantly adopted. Their emphasis on the "one best way" and the therbligs predates the development of Continuous Quality Improvement (CQI) (George 1968: 98), and the late 20th century understanding that repeated motions can lead to workers experiencing repetitive motion injuries.


Gilbreth was the first to propose that a surgical nurse serve as "caddy" (Gilbreth's term) to a surgeon, by handing surgical instruments to the surgeon as called for. Gilbreth also devised the standard techniques used by armies around the world to teach recruits how to rapidly disassemble and reassemble their weapons even when blindfolded or in total darkness. These innovations have arguably helped save millions of lives.


Although the Gilbreths' work is often associated with that of Frederick Winslow Taylor, there was a substantial philosophical difference between the Gilbreths and Taylor. The symbol of Taylorism was the stopwatch, and Taylorism was primarily concerned with reducing the time of processes. The Gilbreths sought to make processes more efficient by reducing the motions involved. They saw their approach as more concerned with workers' welfare than was Taylorism, which workers often perceived as primarily concerned with profit. This led to a personal rift between Taylor and the Gilbreths, which after Taylor's death turned into a feud between the Gilbreths and Taylor's followers. After Frank's death, Lillian Gilbreth took steps to heal the rift (Price 1990), although some friction remains over questions of history and intellectual property.


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth often used their large family (and Frank himself) as guinea pigs in experiments. Their family exploits are lovingly detailed in the 1948 book Cheaper by the Dozen, written by his son Frank Jr. and daughter Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. The book inspired two films of the same name, one (1950) starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, and the other (2003) starring comedians Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. The latter film bears no resemblance to the book except that both feature a family with twelve children. A 1950 sequel, titled Belles on Their Toes, chronicles the adventures of the Gilbreth family after Frank's 1924 death. A second sequel, Time Out For Happiness, was authored by Frank Jr. alone and published in 1971. It is out of print and considered rare.



lillian_gilbrethLillian Moller Gilbreth, BA, MA, PhD, (b. Lillian Evelyn Moller May 24, 1878, Oakland, California – d. January 2, 1972, Phoenix, Arizona) was one of the first working female engineers holding a PhD.


She is arguably the first true industrial/organizational psychologist. She and her husband Frank Bunker Gilbreth were pioneers in the field of industrial engineering. Their interest in time and motion study may have had something to do with the fact that they had an extremely large family. The books Cheaper By The Dozen and Belles on Their Toes are the story of their family life with their twelve children.


In 1984, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor. She is considered "The First Lady of Engineering" and was the first woman elected into the National Academy of Engineering. She was a professor at Purdue University, The Newark College of Engineering and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


She served as an advisor to Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson on matters of civil defense, war production and rehabilitation of the physically handicapped.


She and husband Frank have a permanent exhibit in The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and her portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.


She graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a BA (1900) and MA (1902). Lillian completed her dissertation to obtain her Ph.D from the University of California but did not receive the degree because she was not able to complete the residency requirements. Her dissertation was called "The Psychology of Management". She later went on to earn a Ph.D from Brown University in 1915. It was the first granted in industrial psychology. She also received 22 honorary degrees from schools such as Princeton University, Brown University and the University of Michigan.


Together she and her husband were partners in the management consulting firm of Gilbreth, Inc. which performed time and motion studies. Their children took great part in this. They would do experiments together.


Pioneers in Improvement and our Modern Standard of Living

IW/SI News, Issue 18, September 1968, pgs. 37-38

One of the great husband-and-wife teams of science and engineering, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth early in the 1900s collaborated on the development of motion study as an engineering and management technique. Frank Gilbreth was much concerned until his death in 1924, with the relationship between human beings and human effort.


Frank Gilbreth's well-known work in improving brick-laying in the construction trade is a good example of his approach. From his start in the building industry, he observed that workers developed their own peculiar ways of working and that no two used the same method. In studying bricklayers, he noted that individuals did not always use the same motions in the course of their work. These observations led him to seek one best way to perform tasks.


He developed many improvements in brick-laying. A scaffold he invented permitted quick adjustment of the working platform so that the worker would be at the most convenient level at all times. He equipped the scaffold with a shelf for the bricks and mortar, saving the effort formerly required by the workman to bend down and pick up each brick. He had the bricks stacked on wooden frames, by low-priced laborers, with the best side and end of each brick always in the same position, so that the bricklayer no longer had to turn the brick around and over to look for the best side to face outward. The bricks and mortar were so placed on the scaffold that the brick-layer could pick up a brick with one hand and mortar with the other. As a result of these and other improvements, he reduced the number of motions made in laying a brick from 18 to 4 1/2.


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth continued their motion study and analysis in other fields and pioneered in the use of motion pictures for studying work and workers. They orginated micro-motion study, a breakdown of work into fundamental elements now called therbligs (derived from Gilbreth spelled backwards). These elements were studied by means of a motion-picture camera and a timing device which indicated the time intervals on the film as it was exposed.


After Frank Gilbreth's death, Dr. Lillian Gilbreth continued the work and extended it into the home in an effort to find the "one best way" to perform household tasks. She has also worked in the area of assistance to the handicaped, as, for instance, her design of an ideal kitchen layout for the person afflicted with heart disease. She is widely recognized as one of the world's great industrial and management engineers and has traveled and worked in many countries of the world.


Frank Gilbreth ws born on July 7, 1868–his centennial should mark a milestone in management and work simplification. By 1912, he left the construction business to devote himself entirely to "scientific management"–a term coined, in Gantt's apartment, by a group including Gilbreth. But to him it was more than merely the mouthing of slogans to be foisted on a worker at a job in a plant. It was a philosophy that pervaded home and school, hospital and community, in fact, life itself. It was something that could be achieved only by cooperation–cooperation between engineers, educators, physiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, economists, sociologists, statisticians, managers. Most important–at the core of it all, there was the individual, his comfort, his happiness, his service, and his dignity.


By now, too, there was no mistaking the partnership–even though the wife's modesty, reticence, and sex could mislead all but the knowing. However, one accomplishment is strangely the contribution of Frank Gilbreth alone–even though she may have given of herself to make it possible. This construction is perhaps the greatest of all: the development of Lillian Moller Gilbreth. Few marriages thoughout history can match this romance of husband and wife, both whose names have become famous in the same field. The heights that such a partnership can achieve is probably best realized by attempting to name other such combinations–Pierre and Marie Curie, Charles and Mary Beard, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Elizabeth and Robert Browning. Surely there are not many–but they are impressive.


Throughout his life, Lillian Gilbreth remained, in her eyes, the junior partner. After his death, she said: "I have had more in twenty years than any other woman I have known has had in a lifetime." With him gone, she knew precisely what she had to do: carry on as he would do. This meant family and work. These were tasks for which many of the Gilbreth friends offered their help. Yet these were tasks that she knew she must perform alone. How well she accomplished them–most would say is a tribute to her, her spirit, her character, her intelligence, her strength. All this she would simply and emphatically deny. For to her, it goes without saying, it was simply a tribute to Frank Gilbreth. And who is to say that she may not be right?


"When it comes to the questioning method, of course he shared with all the scientific management group the belief in the value of questions and the need to ask these questions over and over determining how the thing was to be done and why it was done and how the betterment could be brought about."


"The things which concerned him more than anything else were the what and the why–the what because he felt it was necessary to know absolutely what you were questioning and what you were doing or what concerned you, and then the why, the depth type of thinking which showed you the reason for doing the thing and would perhaps indicate clearly whether you should maintain what was being done or should change what was being done."


"This emphasis is a little different from what most people think about Frank and his work, and about the people who worked along these ways. Generally people expect that the most emphasis would be on the where and the when and the how. The how is, of course, in most people's minds very closely identified with motion study, work study, directed energy, work simplification or whatever name is given to this type of work today."


"When he considered the what he thought continuously, not only of the ideal thing that was to be done and the ideal method that was to be used in order to get this done. That of course, was at the base of his favorite concept which was 'the quest of the one best way.' "


It is both easy and difficult to analyze this First Lady of Engineering. She is the epitome of crystal-clear logic–even though she seems to be a mass of contradictions. Trained in literature, she has found her place in engineering. As an engineer, she has found people more important than machines; waging a never-ending war on fatigue. One, watching her unceasing rounds of work, activity, and travel, can rightfully believe that she has created a non-existent foe. An extremely busy woman, she seems to have more time for things than most people. And, as kind and as gentle as she is, she can don armor and do more than hold her ground in defending the right.