Featured Product
This Week in Quality Digest Live
Management Features
Mike Figliuolo
No one needs recurring meetings, unnecessary reports, and thoughtless emails
Etienne Nichols
How to give yourself a little more space when things happen
Gleb Tsipursky
The future of work is here, and AI is the driving force
William A. Levinson
Quality and manufacturing professionals are in the best position to eradicate inflationary waste
Chandrakant Isi
Experts in design and manufacturing describe the role of augmented and virtual reality

More Features

Management News
Recognition for configuration life cycle management
Streamlines the ISO certification process
Nearly two-thirds of HR managers feel AI is changing the skills needed in today’s workplace
On the importance of data governance in the development of complex products
Base your cloud strategy on reliable information
Forecasts S&A subsector to grow 9.2% in 2023
How to consistently make optimal choices in business and life
Embrace mistakes as valuable opportunities for improvement

More News

Harish Jose


The Mother of Modern Management

Getting to know Lillian Moller Gilbreth

Published: Tuesday, May 31, 2016 - 13:11

May 8 was Mother's Day. In today's article I will be writing about somebody who has been called "The Mother of Modern Management" and "America's First Lady of Engineering." Many of this woman's concepts and ideas lend themselves really well to the Toyota Production System.

Lillian Moller Gilbreth did not study engineering at school. She had a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in literature, and she earned her Ph.D. in the field of psychology. She and her husband Frank, who did not attend college but was admitted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, were famous during the early 20th century for their time and motion studies. The Gilbreths were considered to be experts in industrial engineering, and were most likely the first successful management consultant couple.

Humanistic Taylorism

The scientific management theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor were already popular in those days, and helped trigger a push for greater efficiency within manufacturing. "Taylorism," as this body of knowledge came to be called, promised the elimination of wasted motions and employee loafing. However, the outcome of Taylorism was to see the operators as machines. They were required to bring only their hands and not their brains to work.

The Gilbreths understood the point of failure in Taylorism—its focus is strictly on efficiency alone and nothing else. They understood that they needed to engage the operators. Lillian's background in psychology helped in this regard. The Gilbreths began to understand that the focus should be on motion rather than time, and they started concentrating on the concept of fatigue. Lillian worked with her husband to organize the work so that it was easier for the operators to perform. She asked for input from the operators to identify the best way to do the job. Lillian also had a background as a teacher. She adapted teaching techniques so that the operators were able to learn better and understand the "why" and the "how." She championed for the human element. In my opinion, she pioneered Humanistic Taylorism well before Toyota.

Visual management

One variant of a personal kanban image (Source: Wikipedia)

Lillian was a firm believer in visual management, and she made work visible at home, what we would now call "personal kanban." Using a personal kanban board has gained traction in recent years as a way to implement the ideas of work flow, limiting work in process, and using visual methods and devices to manage the work they do in their private lives as well as in their professional lives. You can find the undercurrents of this notion in the following quote, from a speech Lillian gave to the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs in New York in 1930: 

"We considered our time too valuable to be devoted to actual labor in the home. We were executives. So we worked out a plan for the running of our house, adopting charts and a maintenance and follow-up system as is used in factories. When one of the children took a bath or brushed his teeth he made a cross on a chart. Household tasks were divided between the children. We had three rows of hooks, one marked 'jobs to be done,' one marked 'jobs being done,' and a third marked 'jobs completed,' with tags that were moved from hook to hook to indicate the progress of the task."

Workplace organization

The Gilbreths pushed for "one best way" to do a job. They believed that workplace organization would improve the flow of the process. Lillian taught the idea of being "motion-minded," that is, being aware of the motions that you use while doing your job at work—or even in a kitchen. The Gilbreths were so confident of their process that they promised a reduction of 33 percent in work motions in any industry.

Lillian became popular with her analysis of the layout of the kitchen during her work at General Electric as an industrial engineer. As part of her research, she interviewed more than 4,000 women and gathered data on the proper heights for stoves, sinks, and other kitchen appliances. She also identified the best layout to reduce the number of steps taken. She introduced the idea of the "work triangle," writing that "In an efficiently planned kitchen, the perimeter of the triangle formed by stove, sink, and refrigerator should be no greater than 26 feet, with a typical distance of 5.5 feet between appliances."

The kitchen was laid out in different patterns, like "L", "C," or "U" to better aid the homemaker (Lillian preferred the term "homemaker" to "housewife"). She also introduced the idea of using a roller cart in the kitchen. All the improvements she proposed were tested out in the 1931 study documented in the Better Homes Manual. For this report, a strawberry shortcake was made in the old-style kitchen and in Lillian's new-style kitchen. The results were outstanding. The number of operations were reduced from 97 to 64, and the number of steps taken decreased from 281 to 45, much better than the Gilbreth's claim of a 33-percent reduction.

Final words

Lillian Gilbreth is now perhaps most popular for her work in reinventing the modern kitchen or as the mother figure in the Cheaper by the Dozen biographical novel or the movie adaptations of the book. However, she was much more than that. She was an inventor who devised the foot-pedal trash can and shelves inside refrigerator doors.

She faced a great deal of adversity due to her gender. When she authored The Psychology of Management in 1914, her publisher insisted that her name be printed as "L. M. Gilbreth" to hide the fact that the book was written by a woman. Frank died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 56, after which several of the Gilbreths' clients canceled their contracts due to their lack of faith in her. Even though "L. M. Gilbreth" was invited to make presentations at several engineering clubs, she was denied entry when they found out that the author was actually a woman.

Lillian Gilbreth has earned her own place in the world of industrial engineering and lean. She was appointed by President Hoover to join the Emergency Committee for Unemployment. She designed and created the successful "Share the Work" program to create new jobs. She was a consultant to several companies and the federal government. She was the first woman to be elected into the National Academy of Engineering, and she was member No. 1 at the Society of Woman Engineers.

Lillian Gilbreth passed away in 1972 at the age of 94. One of her greatest accomplishments was raising her family, which included 12 children, while making modern advancements in her field.

So to all the mothers out there, and in honor of Lillian Gilbreth, I wish you a happy (belated) Mother's Day.

Always keep on learning.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.