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Engineering: The Gilbreth Life Work

For most readers of the family lore books, the actual work Frank and Lillian Gilbreth did is a blur of “efficiency” and “process charts” and above all, “motion study.” These ideas form a vague backdrop for the family stories and play a part in many of the absurd household adventures.

Many readers probably do not realize how much this aspect of the family life is played down in the popular books. It was the life work and passion of Frank Gilbreth Sr from his earliest adulthood, and he developed contracting and building processes that evolved into formal study and definition of what became called motion study. Lillian, at first a “willling helper” and co-writer and editor of their first books, brought her psychology training and understanding to Frank's hard-won field knowledge and between them shaped the Gilbreth Method that helped transform nearly all physical trades from bricklaying to surgery

After Frank's death, Lillian spent twice as long — over forty years — both championing his contributions and developing her own for homemakers, factory workers and women in general. Not for nothing was she showered with honors and a valued speaker around the globe — one of the truly great women of the 20th century and long considered the “First Lady of Engineering.”

As did David Ferguson, more than twenty years ago, I hope to expand this section into a comprehensive survey of industrial engineering, time and motion study, and the figures who revolutionized human labor from the wearying inefficiencies of 19th-century factories to the highly optimized procedures used today. Few such figures loom larger in the story than Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Dr. Lillian Moller Gilbreth.

Industrial Engineering

Few subjects are more important to understanding the Gilbreths' work and their enduring legacy than industrial engineering... but few subjects are more opaque and misunderstood by outsiders. Even in most of the formal biographies, it is assumed the reader understands exactly what the Gilbreths and others were working on, or towards. Something about saving work and efficiency and reducing motions, certainly... but with little or no context, little connection to its place in shaping the modern world and often dressed with a long list of other obscure (sometimes archaic) terms as explanation.

Many forms of engineering are plainly understood: most adults have an understanding of what mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering and even the slightly opaque civil engineering concern themselves with. But “industrial engineering” sounds somewhere between redundant and pompously meaningless to many readers. It is neither, and can perhaps best be grasped by reversing the terms: it is focused on the engineering of industryall industry. All forms of engineering have the inherent goal of making their focal subject better—better, faster, stronger, cheaper, more capable and going beyond the limits of what it can presently achieve. Industrial engineering is the same, but instead of focusing on a particular type of product or production, it focuses on the process of industry—improving everything from assembly procedures on the factory floor to warehouse organization that improves shipping speed to management practices that streamline decision-making, and even collateral processes like worker safety and accounting.

The immediate reaction to that might be something like, "Well, duh... all businesses chase efficiency like the Holy Grail!" While that is true today, and has been for many decades, it is still a relatively new development in the history of commerce and industry. Until the late 19th Century, efficiency was a chance thing, from coal and iron mines to steel plants to factories and beyond. Businesses were run with archaic and inefficient management and accounting; workers wore themselves out with backbreaking efforts — and when those efforts weren't enough, owners just threw more workers at the job.

The initial time studies of Frederick Taylor, the job-efficiency practices developed by Frank Gilbreth as a contractor, his later evolution of those practices into formal motion study, the growth of “scientific management” to which Henry Gantt and Lillian Gilbreth and others contributed so much... all of these formed the roots of industrial engineering as a field of formal study and application, and transformed everything from business and industry to surgical techniques to the home kitchen. All of these originators deserve far more recognition — on a level with their contemporaries Edison, Ford and Marconi — than the obscurity of this important field has brought them.