Gilbreth, Frank and Lillian

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Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Frank B. Gilbreth

Born July 7, 1868 (Fairfield, Maine)

Died June 14, 1924 (New Jersey)

Lillian M. Gilbreth

Born May 24, 1878 (Oakland, California)

Died January 2, 1972 (Scottsdale, Arizona)

Industrial engineers

Management consultants


Industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were one of the most well-known working couples in the United States during the early years of the twentieth century. Corporations hired them for their pioneering work in scientific industrial management, while magazines profiled their smoothly run household and large family of eleven children. The Gilbreths were efficiency experts at both home and work, and they conducted motion studies, or the analysis of a specific job to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task, and analyzed workforce behavior for dozens of industrial companies in the United States and Europe. By mid-century many of their ideas for streamlining work processes had been incorporated into the daily operations of the nation's factories. The Gilbreths authored numerous books and articles, both together and separately, and Lillian's works introduced psychology into the field of modern industrial management. Yet no title of

"It was a fifty-fifty proposition throughout. Any woman can do it with that sort of husband."

Lillian M. Gilbreth.

theirs ever sold as well as the 1948 book written by a son and daughter, Cheaper by the Dozen. The amusing memoir documented the Gilbreths' attempts to apply their time-management theories to their household.

The Gilbreths became nationally known around 1915, but Frank had achieved some measure of fame before their 1904 marriage. He was born in July 1868, in Fairfield, Maine, into an old New England family. His father, a local hardware businessman, died when Frank was three years old. His mother left the area to find better schools for Frank and his siblings, and they eventually settled in Boston, Massachusetts. Frank finished at the city's English High School in 1885, but his mother was disappointed when he decided against college. He had qualified to enter the well-respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology but chose to become a bricklayer's apprentice instead.

The "one best way"

Gilbreth had larger ambitions and had taken the job merely as training for a career in construction management. He found his true calling, however, on his first day on the job. He realized that the bricklayer who was instructing him used three different methods—one to demonstrate, another when he was talking with colleagues while working, and a third when he was falling behind. Other laborers also seemed to vary in their work styles, and Frank became determined to discover what he called the "one best way" to lay brick, or to do any task. He gained hands-on experience in several building trades and took courses in mechanical drawing at night school. By 1895 he had established his own contracting firm in Boston, Frank Gilbreth and Company, whose slogan was "Speed Work."

Gilbreth made sure his employees knew the "one best way" to carry out their jobs, but he was open to suggestions from them and looked for innovative ideas or products that would make their jobs easier. When he could not find something he needed for the business, he invented it himself, and one of his earliest patents (legal documents giving an inventor the exclusive right to make, use, or sell an invention for a certain term of years) was for a vertical scaffold for working on the sides of buildings. When his firm became skilled at pouring concrete, a new construction material that had begun to replace brick, he devised a new type of concrete mixer. Another of his patents was for an early waterproofing product for concrete basements.

When Gilbreth's firm won the bid to construct the Lowell Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the building was finished in only eleven weeks. It made newspaper headlines on the East Coast and led to larger and more profitable jobs. The company built dams, canals, and residential and factory buildings.

The Gilbreth family

Gilbreth met Lillian Moller of Oakland, California, in 1903. She came from a wealthy family of real estate developers and was planning to go to Europe after having earned a master's degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. Brilliant and determined, she planned on pursuing a doctorate, although at that time women who held graduate degrees were still quite rare.

It would take Lillian some time to earn that last degree, for not long after she and Gilbreth wed in October 1904 she found herself expecting their first child. Anne was born in September 1905, followed by eleven siblings, one of whom died at the age of five from diphtheria, a deadly childhood disease that affected the heart and nervous system. In the first years of their marriage, the Gilbreths lived in New York City. Frank's mother lived with them for many years and provided much-needed help in caring for the growing clan. The last Gilbreth child, Jane, was born in 1922.

Lillian had already started to use her writing skills even before their marriage, revising a booklet Frank had written entitled Field System. He had interviewed his workers at length, finding out how their day progressed and incorporating their suggestions for improvement. The work, not published until 1908, was written to be read specifically by laborers, which was an unusual notion at the time.

Became followers of Taylorism

Still fascinated by the "one best way" theory, Frank discovered the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856–1915). Frank first met Taylor in 1907, and he and Lillian became members of Taylor's growing circle of professional followers. Considered the founder of the field of scientific management, Taylor believed that managing an industrial workplace could be a professional field of study all by itself, on the same level as engineering or law. Overseeing a large crew of workers and helping the workplace run smoothly was no easy task in the increasingly complex industrial age, and Taylor believed that there were a number of principles and concepts that should be mastered by a professional manager.

Taylor's theory of scientific management was based on his extensive research on the factory floor. He believed that an employee whose job involved a dull or unchallenging task would work at the slowest pace he could without attracting the attention of his supervisors. Taylor called this "soldiering," and some of the ideas he devised, such as rest breaks for workers, were attempts to eliminate the behavior. However, Taylorism, as his philosophy was known, also made him the enemy of organized labor. Taylor's views about factory efficiency seemed to view employees as part of the machinery itself, and he was known to be sharply critical towards them. Some workers even staged walkouts when the management expert, with his ever-present stopwatch, was brought in to reorganize a work site.

The Gilbreths' philosophy of scientific management treated the workers more fairly, and some of this was because of Lillian's interest in industrial psychology. Lillian decided to return to school to work on her doctorate, this time in psychology. She was unable to receive her degree from Berkeley because of residency requirements, but her dissertation (a written treatment of a subject, usually submitted to earn a doctorate) was published as The Psychology of Industrial Management. The publisher, however, insisted it appear under the name L. M. Gilbreth, so that it would not be automatically rejected by its intended male readership because the author was a woman.

Frank Gilbreth eventually abandoned his construction business to concentrate on industrial management full time. He wrote more books with Lillian, and both were active in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In 1910 Frank testified before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) in Washington, D.C. This was a federal agency established to monitor the rates that railroads charged their freight customers. He explained to lawmakers the principles behind his motion studies of workers on the job. At one point he even demonstrated his point by stacking up law books to show how a brick wall was built. He argued that the railroads, which had asked the ICC for permission to raise their tariffs, or rates, could be run more efficiently by using some of the ideas behind scientific management. In the end the commission members voted against the proposed tariff increase, and Gilbreth's new management consulting business earned a lot of free publicity.

The year 1912 was one of great change for the Gilbreths. They had five children by then, but their second daughter, five-year-old Mary, died at home of diphtheria in January. They also had a professional disagreement with Taylor, who even claimed that he had given Frank Gilbreth the idea for the adjustable scaffold back in the 1890s, long before the two had ever met. Taylor was under a great deal of criticism at the time, and his ideas were called authoritarian (favoring blind submission to authority) and insulting to the workers. He was forced to defend them before lawmakers who sat on the Labor Committee of the U.S. House, and that led to a forty-year ban on the use of the stopwatch on any federal project.

The Gilbreths moved to Providence, Rhode Island, in May 1912 so that Lillian could enter Brown University and finally earn her doctorate. Their new consulting firm had also won its first major client, the New England Butt Company, which made the braiding machines that were used to manufacture shoelaces and other consumer goods at its vast Providence headquarters. The Gilbreths installed the factory organization scheme known as the Taylor system there but also put some of their own theories into practice. One of these was a suggestion box, and the company gave a monthly cash prize to the worker with the best new idea.

Lillian was a strong advocate of the rest break, which was considered an unusual concept at the time. She presented studies proving that it actually increased productivity in workers. She also designed a number of motion study experiments, which Frank carried out at the Butt Company. The motion studies would become the Gilbreths' most significant professional achievement, and they spent hours perfecting their ideas. At their home Frank set up a special desk with a grid pattern on it. He filmed Lillian doing various small tasks over the squares of the grid while she wore a ring with a small electric light attached to it. They then studied the film footage and plotted out, with the help of the grid, how to reduce wasted motion. Their system, which they named the stereocyclegraph, was first used at their next consulting job, this time for a New Jersey handkerchief factory.

Pioneering work with war veterans

In 1913 the Gilbreths founded the Summer School of Scientific Management, which offered courses on their motion study and psychology research. The school was well attended by management professionals from across the United States and helped boost their reputation as innovative industrial engineers. During the early part of World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), Frank was hired by Allgemeine Elektriziäts Gesellschaft (AEG), a huge German company that was similar to General Electric in the United States. He spent two months touring AEG factories and suggesting improvements, and during this time he saw the permanently injured soldiers returning from the battlefield. He began to think about applying some of the motion study ideas to try to help the suddenly disabled recover physically.

Frank began working with veterans in military hospitals who had lost a limb or part of one. Out of this effort came his study of the seventeen fundamental motions used to perform physical tasks. These included search, find, select, grasp, and position, and each of these he called a "therblig," which was Gilbreth spelled backwards. He devised a chart that showed diagrams for each, which was used to help the disabled relearn certain tasks.

Lillian, meanwhile, was granted her doctorate from Brown in 1915. She was the first among the founders of scientific management to earn one in the field of industrial psychology. One of the few women of her generation to accept a Ph.D. at a commencement ceremony, six of her children were there to cheer for her.

In the years following World War I, the Gilbreths' consulting business thrived. Frank was determined to avoid the bad reputation that Taylor had earned among ordinary workers and labor unions, and he would only take clients who were progressive in their attitudes. These included Eastman Kodak, U.S. Rubber, and Pierce Arrow, an automobile manufacturer. They were also hired by the Remington Typewriter Company to come up with the ideal method for teaching beginners how to type. By then the Gilbreths had discovered that their growing family could be used to help them carry out their research, and they practiced typing methods with the younger children on Remingtons with color-coded keys. Once the younger ones were put to bed, the older children sat down at typewriters with blanked-out keys.

Frank's interests in medicine and recorded motion studies led to his filming of operations in hospitals. He was the first person to do so, though it later became a common practice in medical schools. He also hired a camera operator when several of the Gilbreth children underwent surgery to have their tonsils removed. This was done at their home, but the footage was never released, perhaps because of technical problems. This multiple-surgery event appeared in the first film version of Cheaper by the Dozen, the 1948 best seller written by two of the Gilbreth children.

Cheaper by the Dozen

Frank Gilbreth Jr., the first of the Gilbreths' six sons, teamed with his sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, the second-oldest daughter, to write a comic memoir of their family life that was published in 1948. Cheaper by the Dozen spent months on the best-seller lists and was still in print fifty years later. Lillian approved of the manuscript, but was reportedly unhappy with her portrayal in a 1950 film version in which actress Myrna Loy (1905–1993) was cast to play her. The role of the fictional Gilbreth mother was further decreased in a 2003 remake that had little to do with the original book's plot and centered on the often comic daily life inside a household of twelve children. As Frank Jr. and Ernestine wrote in their book, newspaper photographers were regular visitors at their home, which would prompt their father to "whistle assembly, take out his stopwatch, and demonstrate how quickly we could gather. Then he would show the visitors how we could type, send the Morse code, multiply numbers, and speak some French, German, and Italian. Sometimes he'd holler 'fire' and we'd drop to the floor and roll up in rugs."

The Gilbreth system perfected—at home

In 1919 the Gilbreths moved to Montclair, New Jersey, where much of the household management system detailed in the book by Frank Jr. and Ernestine was perfected. All the Gilbreth children had chores and were expected to deliver written reports to their parents on various household efficiency topics. A weekly Sunday night council was held in order to discuss plans, special tasks, and goals for the coming week. Lillian was frequently profiled in newspapers and magazines as one of a new kind of American woman: the working mother. In the interviews she often pointed out that an efficiently managed household allowed a woman to pursue a career outside the home with a minimum of stress.

However, Frank's sudden death from a heart attack in June 1924 nearly ended Lillian's professional career. She quickly found that despite her impressive qualifications, corporate executives were unwilling to hire a woman consultant. With her typical ability to adapt, she instead turned herself into an expert on women's work. She founded the Motion Study Institute out of her home and wrote numerous articles for women's magazines about household management. Her book The Home-Maker and Her Job appeared in 1927. She was a consultant to appliance manufacturers and college home economics departments for many years and in 1935 was hired by Purdue University as a professor of management.

Lillian Gilbreth carried on some of her late husband's work with the disabled. She authored an early title in the field of modern occupational therapy, Normal Lives for the Disabled, with Edna Yost in 1944 and designed a kitchen for patients of New York University Medical Center's Institute of Rehabilitation that was widely copied. She remained active well into her senior years and was still lecturing at the age of ninety. She died in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January 1972.

The Gilbreths' work laid the foundation for industrial management of the twentieth century. One of their most important achievements came out of a presentation they made at the 1921 convention of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. It was titled "Process Charts—First Steps in Finding the One Best Way" and showed a detailed method for organizing the flow of work in a manufacturing facility. The chart relied on simple symbols, with an arrow standing for a transportation step in the process (for example, when a product or part was moved from one station to another) and a square symbol standing for a quality inspection stage. The process chart was widely used during the American manufacturing boom of the 1940s and 1950s. But it was the more human-focused ideas that the Gilbreths championed—that the worker's input, physical well-being, and psychological health were all important to the ultimate financial success of a company—that made them pioneers in their field.

For More Information


Gilbreth, Frank B. Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Cheaper by the Dozen. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1948. Exp. Ed. 1963.

Lancaster, Jane. Making Time: Lillian Moller Gilbreth—A Life beyond "Cheaper by the Dozen." Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 2004.


"Assisting the Handicapped: The Pioneering Efforts of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth." Journal of Management (March 1992): p. 5.

"Frank and Lillian Gilbreth: Motion Study Pioneers." Thinkers. (December 2000).

Web Sites

The Gilbreth Network. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

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Gilbreth, Frank and Lillian

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