What would Lillian suggest?

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This morning I saw Selena Rezvani's contribution to the Washington Post "On Leadership" column. The title was: "Not your mother’s ambition." And I read my friend Laura Schroeder's post titled: "The New Little Black of Benefits" where she discusses flexibility as the new power benefit.

By coincidence, Lillian Moller Gilbreth was born on this date in 1878. We have no idea what her specific responses to those blog posts might be, but they would combine the concern for efficiency and care for people that characterized her life. 

Lillian Moller was born in Oakland, California and went to the University of California in Berkeley. When she graduated with a degree in English in 1900 she became the first woman commencement speaker at Cal. She to Columbia to work on a Master's degree in psychology but illness forced her to return home. So she switched back to English and completed her masters at Cal in 1902.

Then she did the work to obtain her PhD from Cal in psychology, all the way through writing her dissertation. But the university denied her the degree because she did not meet residency requirements. The dissertation was published in 1914 as The Psychology of Management, the first book on the subject of "human factors" in management.

Her family had moved to New England, so Lillian enrolled at Brown where she earned a PhD. Her dissertation was:  "Some Aspects of Eliminating Waste in Teaching." Her doctorate is often considered the first industrial engineering degree.

She married Frank Bunker Gilbreth and the two were pioneers in time and motion study. Among many ideas that they shared was that Taylor's "Scientific Management" failed to account for the human element. They formed a company to come up with something better.

Somewhere along the way, they decided to have twelve children. Their thinking was that they were management consultants, after all, and a team so they'd be able to deal with any problems as they arose. The couple had the twelve children and their family adventures were chronicled in the book and the film Cheaper by the Dozen.

One fact of their life was that while they were a partnership supporting each other, the outside world saw things differently. Lillian was, by far, the more educated, but Frank's name always appeared first on books and publications. Very often Lillian's name was not there at all, or rendered as "L. M. Gilbreth" because editors thought readers would discount research by a woman.

That was still the case in 1950, when the movie Cheaper by the Dozen came out. The official description of the movie says that "Frank Gilbreth, Sr., was a pioneer in the field of motion study, and often used his family as guinea pigs."

When Frank died suddenly in 1924, Lillian had to make her way in the business world. She continued writing and teaching until shortly before her death in 1972 at the age of 93.

Lillian was the first woman professor of engineering at Purdue, where she also consulted with the dean on careers for women. She worked as a management consultant for companies like Macy's and as a market research and product designer for Johnson and Johnson. She worked with the government on issues of women in the workforce and helped design an ideal kitchen for display at the Chicago World's Fair (she invented the work triangle used in kitchen planning).

Lillian Gilbreth is one of my heroes for the broad range of areas where she made significant contributions. She was one of the first people to combine the efficiency of engineering solutions with concern for how people work. If you're a woman, it would be hard to find a more impressive role model. If you're a boss she's the source of powerful advice.

Boss's Bottom Line

Lillian Moller Gilbreth's life is a monument to linking concern for getting the job done in a way that's operationally efficient and human-friendly.

Wally's Working Supervisor's Support Kit is a collection of information and tools to help working supervisors do a better job. It's based on what Wally's learned in over twenty years of supervisory skills training. Click here to check it out.



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  • 5/24/2011 6:37 PM Fernando J Grijalva wrote:
    Dear Mr. Bock,

    Here is little more information on Ms. Gilbreth. A few weeks ago I did some research on her to share with the W.E. Deming group on Linkedin.


    Fernando J. Grijalva

    The origin of Toyota Production System, previous to Dr. Deming's arrival in Japan, started when Ken'ichi Horigome, Tsuneo Ono, Yoichi and others (in the 1920's) were exposed to the theories of work measurement and design developed by Frank B. and Lillian M. Gilbreth. Later, Tsuneo Ono influenced Shigeo Shingo, IE and Taiichi Ohno, IE.

    Originally conceived by Frank and Lillian M. Gilbreth, the “tabletop improvement experiments” have been used in Japan since 1925 to teach important principles of continuous improvement. They were adopted by Shigeo Shingo.

    Lillian Gilbreth, IE, received in the name of the emperor of Japan the "Third Class of the Order of the Precious Crown'' for "Outstanding contribution to the guidance and diffusion of scientific management and industrial development" (1968)

    Dr. Deming worked with Ben S. Graham, IE and Lillian Gilbreth in the study of administrative processes in the early 1950's. He provided statistical knowledge in support of the study of work processes

    Reply to this
    1. 5/24/2011 7:08 PM Wally Bock wrote:
      Thank you so much, Fernando. That's great information.
      Reply to this
  • 5/24/2011 9:03 PM Gwyn Teatro wrote:
    I loved this story, Wally. I remember reading the book “Cheaper By the Dozen” and later, seeing the movie on television many years ago and feeling nothing but admiration for Lillian Gilbreth. Thank you for reminding me of her. And, just as an aside, I think Myrna Loy was an excellent choice to play her in the movie too ☺
    Reply to this
    1. 5/25/2011 11:24 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks, Gwyn. I liked the book much more than the movie, because I thought it captured the humanity of the family in a way that a movie can't. What I value now about both book and movie is that they've kept alive the memory of some remarkable people.

      Reply to this
  • 5/25/2011 12:12 AM Mark Bach wrote:
    My dad was a HUGE fan of both the movie and the Gilbreth's focus on the scientific method. He did motion studies as a civilian for the Air Force and I hadn't heard a reference to them in years. Thanks Wally.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/25/2011 11:27 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for sharing that, Mark. What I really like about the Gilbreth approach to all this was that they created a method that was both more scientific (based on standard measurement) and more overt (no hidden observers) and they study methods also involved talking to workers and seeking advice on the work. It's a good model for the consultants among us today.

      Reply to this
  • 5/25/2011 7:32 AM Bret Simmons wrote:
    Thanks for your tribute to this GIANT figure in the history of management that I bet many have never heard of. I only know because before I went on to major in management I spent 4 years chewing on industrial engineering. Thanks, Wally.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/25/2011 11:30 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Actually I started out in Industrial Engineering as well, Bret, but I didn't change majors later. Instead, the program was renamed "Management Science" and re-designed to include quantitative methods in other realms of management.

      Reply to this
  • 5/25/2011 9:12 AM Liz wrote:
    Great post Wally & thanks for sharing the info. A true legend and wonderful insight into the true story behind this arm of industrial consulting.
    Reply to this
    1. 5/25/2011 11:33 AM Wally Bock wrote:

      Thanks for the kind words, Liz. One impressive thing about the work of the Gilbreths was that they were the first to integrate improving efficiency and improving work environments. That's one of the reasons why their work sets a standard many have trouble matching today.

      Reply to this
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