By the
Mind Tools
Editorial Team

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Pioneers of Ergonomics and "Time and Motion"

The Gilbreths pioneered Time and Motion studies

© iStockphoto

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...

Access the Full Article

This article is is only available in full within the Mind Tools Club.

Learn More and Join Today

Already a Club member? Log in to finish this article.