Lillian Gilbreth’s Study of Time and Motion
Lillian Gilbreth was an extraordinary woman who was ahead of her time. She and her husband, Frank Bunker Gilbreth, made impressive contributions to engineering, efficiency and management, but their work also significantly impacted the world of cleaning — both directly and indirectly. Born in 1878, Lillian overcame gender barriers and societal expectations to become a groundbreaking figure in the early 20th century, specifically in the area of time and motion.
Gilbreth's journey towards success began with her education. Among the first women to attend and graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, she defied convention and paved the way for future generations of female engineers. She earned her degree in English literature and subsequently shifted her focus to psychology, receiving a Ph.D. from Brown University in 1915. She possessed a unique combination of analytical thinking and empathy. In 1935, Purdue University hired Lillian as a professor of management, making her the first female professor at the university.
Inspired by Frederick W. Taylor, the husband/wife duo began searching for "the one best way" to perform any task — and thus embarked on innovative research into workplace efficiency and productivity. This resulted in the "Gilbreth System," which identified 18 types of working motions. These were named Therbligs (Gilbreth spelled backward), and they aimed to eliminate wasted time, reduce worker fatigue and improve efficiencies.
The Gilbreths were champions for people with disabilities, even looking for ways to make household design more accommodating and creating new versions of tools to simplify maintenance. For example, if your home trash can has a pedal that opens the top lid, you can thank Lillian Gilbreth.
When Frank died in 1924, Lillian continued their work, remaining influential in the business world, which was still predominantly dominated by men. She was a crucial driver in developing the home economics movement, applying scientific management principles to running an efficient home. This included travel routes through the kitchen, clean-up after cooking, and efficient placement of tools.
One of Lillian Gilbreth's most significant contributions was her ergonomics and human factors engineering expertise. She recognized the importance of considering human capabilities, limitations, and comfort when designing workspaces and tools. Gilbreth's influence extended beyond industrial engineering to household management and parenting.
We still feel Gilbreth's impact on contemporary management practice in this modern age. Her concepts of time and motion studies, work simplification, and human-centered design have become foundational principles in industrial engineering, operations management and organizational behavior. Many of the time and motion studies for tools and tasks in the commercial cleaning profession follow the path laid out by the work of the Gilbreths.
Lillian Gilbreth's remarkable achievements as an engineer, efficiency expert, and advocate for women's empowerment have left an indelible mark on multiple industries. Her groundbreaking research, innovative ideas, and unwavering determination have forever changed how we think about work, productivity and human potential.
Ben Walker is the Senior Director of Training and Development at Pegasus. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.