Engineer of the Week No.43: Lillian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth (24thMay 1878 – 2nd January 1972)
Today, on her 141st birthday, we remember Lillian Gilbreth, “America’s first lady of engineering”, industrial efficiency expert.
Lillian Gilbreth had no engineering education but, like her British protege Anne Shaw, Lilian’s background in psychology led her into industrial and engineering worlds where she became renowned as an expert in improving efficiency.
Lillian Moller was born in Oakland, California to parents of German origins, her father being a builders’ supply merchant. After a period of home education, she excelled at theOakland High School and went on to gain a BA and then an MA in English Literature from the University of California. In 1904 she married Frank Bunker Gilbreth and resumed an interest from her college days, in psychology, eventuallycompleting her doctoral thesis onThe Function of the Mind in Determining, Teaching and Installing Methods of Least Waste. She and her husband shared interests scientific management principles and pioneered many industrial management techniques. Her husband concentrated on the technical aspects of worker efficiency, but Lillian was interested in the human behaviour in the workplace. She meticulously investigated the best heights for both domestic and industrial worksurfaces for men and for women.
Gilbreth and her husband were equal partners in their engineering and management consulting firm of Gilbreth, Incorporated. After her husband died in 1924 she was left with 11 children to raise, and continued to lead the company for decades after his death in 1924, although she struggled to retain former clients who did not trust her without her husband.
The Gilbreths challenged the “Taylorist” time-and-motion studies which had been adopted by much of industry in the early 20th century. Their Gilbreth System, with its slogan, "The One Best Way to Do Work," demonstrated that the motion study aspect was the most critical part and that timing workers’ productivity was meaningless until their movements in undertaking any task had been analysed. The Gilbreths developed a new use of the slow-motion camera to record work processes to analyse workers' movements, mprove efficiency and reduce fatigue.These films allowed tasks to be broken down into units of movement called “Therbligs” (their name approximately backwards), from which more efficient work methods could then be proposed, eg by ensuring fewer un-necessary movements.
Lillian served on many government advisory boards during the Great Depression and Second World War years. She authored numerous books and papers, lectured extensively and had many honours, including 23 honorary doctorates. She had strong connections with the Women’s Engineering Society which she visited frequently during her lecture tours. Although never trained in engineering formally, she came to be known as "America's first lady of engineering,".