Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Pioneers of Ergonomics and "Time and Motion"

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth - Pioneers of Ergonomics

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Efficiency and productivity go together, and working efficiently has many meanings. It's not just about working in a way that allows you to get the most done in a fixed period of time. It also involves making sure that you don't hurt productivity.

If you work too fast, you risk making mistakes. You also risk becoming so tired, either mentally or physically, that you have to stop working too early, which means that your total efficiency suffers.

Today, we regularly use ergonomic principles to design work and workplace equipment. From something as simple as placing the photocopier in a central location, to custom designing workstations to minimize repetitive strain injuries, the principles of work efficiency are all around us. But where did these ideas originate?

The poorly-designed, inefficient workplaces of the late 19th century led to the scientific management movement in the early 20th century, which applied the scientific method to the study of the workplace. Frank Gilbreth and his wife, Lillian, were supporters of this movement. The Gilbreths pioneered the study of "time and motion" at work. They were interested in efficiency, so they set up experiments to examine the movements that individual workers made while doing their daily work.

Before he became a workplace researcher, Frank was a bricklayer. He noted that every worker had his own way of laying bricks. By observing these individual methods, he determined the most efficient way to complete the task. Frank believed that by working efficiently, both the employer and the worker would benefit – employers would gain more productivity, and workers would have reduced stress and fatigue. His observations eventually led to a new way of laying bricks that more than doubled daily output.

Another of Frank's studies led to creating the role of the surgical assistant in modern operating rooms. Instead of the surgeon finding each instrument he needed, a nurse would stand by and hand the surgeon the appropriate tool.

Interesting Fact: The book "Cheaper by the Dozen" was written by Frank and Lillian's children Frank Jr. and Ernestine. There were 12 children in the family, and the book (and subsequent movies) highlighted the efficiencies that were introduced into their household as a result of their parents' methods.

Experimental Technique

Work simplification strategies can be traced back to the work of the Gilbreths, whose methods were quite sophisticated. For example, they weren't satisfied with simply saying that a person "moved the hand," so they broke down this action into 17 separate units of motion. They called each motion a "therblig," which is "Gilbreth" spelled backward (the "th" is transposed for easier pronunciation).

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They also invented a microchronometer to study work motion. This is a clock capable of recording time to the 1/2000th of a second. By placing the clock in the field of the picture, they could break movements down into very small units of time. Henry Gantt, the originator of the Gantt Chart, was a contemporary of the Gilbreths, who used a Gantt Chart to demonstrate graphically the various pieces of a larger task.

The Gilbreths' discoveries about workplace efficiency were not limited to the need to increase output. They were also interested in how workers could reduce fatigue. From this industrial psychology perspective, they advanced ideas about how best to train and develop workers. Tactics like job rotation and finding work best suited for a worker's natural skills and abilities developed from the Gilbreths' extensive experiments.

While the Gilbreths' work is very important, their methods are no longer used directly in the modern workplace. However, the underlying theory of workplace efficiency remains strong. See a current list of team tools to improve the effectiveness and functionality of your team, and learn about the Kaizen approach to efficiency.

Key Points

While you may not have known the names Frank and Lillian Gilbreth before reading this article, their contribution to the advancement of management science and modern management theory was significant. Today, we're very familiar with the idea of workplace efficiency – no one argues with its importance. We can thank pioneers in the management science movement, like the Gilbreths, for this knowledge.