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Who Was Lillian Gilbreth?

As the late 1890s rolled over into the early 1900s, America was making the transition from an agricultural economy to one that was based upon industry, manufacturing, and mechanization. Instead of people working on farms or in manual trades as they had for generations, now thousands of factory jobs came open across the country, enticing some people to leave the farm for jobs in one of the many new industries.

The Invention Age

Automobiles, electric lights, telephones, typewriters, cash registers, and phonographs went from curiosities to must-haves. These products were all built in factories, and factories needed workers. So did the iron, steel, railroad, automobile, and petroleum industries. Manufacturing relied on inbound shipping for the delivery of raw materials and outbound transportation for the distribution of finished goods. 

As industries grew, manufacturing sites grew up near the sources of raw materials

The steel industry was concentrated in Pennsylvania and Ohio, areas rich in iron and oil. Farm machinery manufacturers built factories in America’s breadbasket, where the farmland was richest. Cotton mills sprang up in the South. Lumber mills were built near forests.

Mechanization changed how people worked

Hand-made products were replaced by machine-made products. Where craftspeople had built one product from start to finish for centuries, machines divided the work into small, repetitive tasks. Workers performed the same tasks day after day, with no sense of having produced anything a tangible product on their own. Everything had to be coordinated, so working hours were established and everybody followed the same set schedule.

“In the past the man has been first. In the future, the system must be first.”

These were the words of Frederick Winslow Taylor. An intelligent man and a hard worker, he began as a machinist’s apprentice. A standout employee, he was promoted to gang boss, then maintenance foreman, and finally, chief engineer.

Taylor recognized that employees were not working themselves or their machines nearly as hard as they could

This resulted in high labor costs for the company, so he developed a method for studying and improving industrial efficiency. He applied engineering principles to work done on the factory floor, opening a new field of industrial engineering. He called it Scientific Management.

One best way

Taylor thought many of the problems with labor were the result of using outdated methods. He believed that for any task or piece of work, there was one best way to do it, and by using his principles, he could find the most efficient way. That, he said, would be the way everyone would do it.

Workers who wouldn’t cooperate and those who couldn’t get the hang of it because they were ill-suited to the task would be reassigned or released. Those who used the new methods would be paid according to their productivity, an idea called piecework.

Taylor believed that productivity would increase if jobs were simplified

He and his associates conducted scientific studies of the workplace to learn how each task was performed and how it fit with the tasks that came before and after.

Taylor’s scientific approach to management was built on four principles

Scientifically study each task. Managers are responsible for gathering objective data, conducting experiments, and standardizing policies and procedures based upon analysis of the outcomes.

Scientifically select, train, teach and develop every worker. Skilled teachers should show the worker how the work can best be done, and give workers the guidance, help and encouragement they need to develop proficiency.

Divide the work and the responsibility. Taylor said management has the responsibility for working side by side with workers, and dividing work equally between managers and workers, so that managers plan the work and provide the tools workers need to perform the tasks using their know-how.

Cooperate with the worker. Taylor said work should be distributed among four sets of employees as follows:

  1. One group of employees should be fully engaged in the development of workplace science.
  2. A second group of skilled workers should teach employees while helping and guiding them with their work.
  3. A third group should provide workers with all the tools they need to do their jobs, keeping them in optimum condition and perfect order.
  4. A fourth group should plan the work well in advance and make changes as necessary and based upon worker feedback.


Frank Gilbreth was an industrial engineer 

When he was 17, he worked as a bricklayer’s assistant, seeing how every bricklayer had his own way of doing things. He had been interested in Taylor’s principles of scientific management and decided to apply them to the bricklayers’ trade. 

Gilbreth’s intense analysis of each of the bricklayers’ movements led him to eliminate all unnecessary motions

Using what he learned from his filmed motion studies, he developed a new procedure that reduced the bricklayers’ 18 separate motions per brick to only five by eliminating 13 unnecessary and time-wasting movements. For those who think little things like this surely can’t make much of a difference, remind them that bricklayers might repeat each step of the job 1,000 times a day.

Gilbreth knew that the tools of bricklaying had hardly changed in hundreds of years

So he improved them or built new ones, including one that stacked bricks more efficiently, an adjustable scaffold that kept the bricks at the optimum height to reduce most of the effortful bending and lifting, and an easier-to-use mortar box.

Gilbreth set up a demonstration that tested his new methods against the traditional methods

The team of union bricklayers that followed the traditional methods averaged laying 120 bricks per man per hour. The union bricklayers that followed the Gilbreth methods averaged laying 350 bricks per man per hour. In another test, he increased the rate of laying bricks from 1,000 a day to nearly 3,000 a day. The details of these analyses can be found in his book, Bricklaying System.

.Scientific motion studies seek to eliminate needless and wasted motions and replace slower movements with quicker ones

Frank Gilbreth wrote to the head of The New York Hospital, offering to demonstrate the efficiency of his motion studies at no charge. The administrator agreed and the Gilbreths began by observing hundreds of surgeons and nurses at work.

What was immediately obvious to them was that surgeons spent more time searching for the instruments they needed than on the surgery itself

The Gilbreths were the first to suggest that surgical operations would go better, faster, and easier if a person was assigned to hand surgical instruments to the surgeon as needed. Just like real operating rooms, the ones on TV have gowned and gloved specialists whose job it is to hand the right instruments to the surgeon instantly upon demand. So when the surgeon says “scalpel” and an assistant immediately slaps it into the surgeon’s outstretched hand, give a nod to the Gilbreths and their motion studies.

Time-and-motion studies

With both approaches to studing and improving efficiency in the workplace, it was inevitable that time-and-motion studies combined the best of Taylor’s time studies and the Gilbreth’s motion studies. There were two key differences between Taylor and the Gilbreths.

  • Taylor’s main concern was profit; the Gilbreths were more concerned with workers’ welfare. 
  • Taylor was the stopwatch, interested in going faster; the Gilbreths were interested in making processes more efficient. 

The Gilbreths took efficiency a step further by saying that unnecessary motions not only wasted time, but added to worker fatigue, too

They redesigned enough tools, parts locations, workbenches, and seating heights, and more to arrive at the point where they developed workplace standards. Today we know this as ergonomics. 

Lillian Gilbreth was an industrial engineer, psychologist, consultant, educator, and mother of 12 children

Frank died when their youngest child was two, leaving Lillian to run the business by herself. The factory work carried on, but she also took on the task of making home economics more efficient. She revolutionized kitchen design, believing that a well-planned kitchen should be not only efficient, but should make cooks’ chores easier, too.

Kitchens have three main work zones

  • The refrigerator is the main storage area for food and perishables. 
  • The sink and adjacent counter are the main areas for preparation and cleaning. 
  • The stove is the main cooking area. 

The Kitchen Triangle 

Effective kitchens have stove, refrigerator, and sink laid out as a triangle. The shorter the combined distance from refrigerator to sink, sink to stove, and stove to refrigerator, the less wasted motion and the more efficient the kitchen. The triangle layout increases the functionality, usability, and efficiency of a kitchen by reducing unnecessary steps.

Measure your kitchen

Using a tape measure, measure the distance between the refrigerator and sink, the sink and the stove, and the stove and the refrigerator. Each leg should be between 4 and 9 feet long, so appliances and work areas are not too far apart or crowded too close together. Make sure the total distance of all three legs is between 12 and 26 feet.

The Gilbreth Management Desk

With a dozen children, Gilbreth knew firsthand that the business of running a house needs a well-planned office. She called it the Business Headquarters of the Household Manager. The desk had drawers that separated paid and unpaid bills, a telephone nook, a surface with pen and paper for making notes and lists, a shelf for cookbooks, and an odds-and-ends drawer.

Gilbreth called her kitchen design The Kitchen Practical

As a demonstration of its efficiency, Lillian designed an experiment for the Herald Tribune Magazine. All cooks were to make a strawberry shortcake. One group would work in a typical unplanned kitchen. Another group would make the same dessert with the same equipment and utensils in Lillian’s Kitchen Practical. Below are two of the key findings.


Lillian Gilbreth was the first to design refrigerators with shelves in the door, increasing storage space and ease of access. She designed an electric mixer that saved time and effort. She invented a foot-pedal trash can to keep cooks’ hands free from germs. When you use any of these things — or work within your kitchen’s triangle — you are using things invented by Lillian Gilbreth to make the cook’s life easier.

Cheaper By The Dozen 
  • It’s the name of the book written by two of the Gilbreth children, Ernestine and Frank Jr. and published in 1948. It was an amusing best-selling memoir of what the New York Times called “a life of cheerfully controlled chaos” with efficiency-minded parents.
  • It’s the name of a 1950 film filled with stories of how the twelve Gilbreth children grew up as willing experimental guinea pigs.
  • It’s the name of a 2003 film that has nothing to do with the real story.
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