The essay will start off with a brief biography of Lillian Gilbreth before discussing how social, economic, political and intellectual factors prevailing during her life influenced her and the development of her theories. However, her achievements would not have been possible without the help and support from her husband, Frank Gilbreth – the founder of motion study. Therefore, as we discuss about Lillian Gilbreth’s contribution to the field of management, we will also include brief discussions about Frank Gilbreth, as he played a fundamental role in Lillian’s life.
We will then elaborate how relevant the theories are to managers today. Lillian Gilbreth was a remarkable woman pioneer in modern industrial management (Proffitt 1999). She was the one of the first theorist in the early twentieth century to emphasize the importance of psychology into scientific management (Kelly & Kelly 1990). Lillian Gilbreth was born Lillian Evelyn Moller on 24th May, 1878 in Oakland, California, the oldest of nine children of William and Annie Delger Moller (Proffitt 1999).
In 1904, Lillian married Frank Gilbreth and produced twelve children (one which died of diphtheria at the age of six) (Burns 1978; Wren & Bedeian 2009). With the support of Frank, Lillian successfully published The Psychology of Management in 1914, which is one of the earliest thesis that contributed to the understanding of the human factor in the industry (Wren & Bedeian 2009). In 1915, she earned a PhD from Brown University, becoming the first woman to receive a doctorate in psychology. (Yost, cited in Miller & Lemons 1998).
The Gilbreths were commonly known for their partnership in the scientific management (Wren & Bedeian 2009). It was not until Frank’s death in 1924 that Lillian Gilbreth shouldered on the responsibility for providing for her children, thus beginning her independence as a working mother, carving a name for herself (Browne 2000). In 1926, she became the first woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (Browne 2000). She went to Purdue in 1935 as Professor of Management, becoming the first female professor in the engineering school (Wren & Bedeian 2009).
Lillian Gilbreth died in 1972 at the age of 92, leaving a legacy of productivity improvements and a richly deserved reputation as a key contributor to workplace psychology (Kelly & Kelly 1990). She received twenty-two doctorates, more than a dozen Honorary Memberships in professional societies and many medals and awards for her pioneering work (Burns 1978, Browne 2000). The marriage of Lillian and Frank marked the beginning of a synergistic partnership that produced new concepts related to worker efficiency and productivity (Browne 2000).
Frank was already a well-established pioneer in the new field of scientific management then, famous for his work on motion studies, which Lillian later helped to develop with her flair for workplace psychology (Miller & Lemons 1998; Wren & Bedeian 2009). Brought up in a traditional family, where there was a strong social belief that a woman’s place is in the household and not a lover of the limelight, Lillian felt that assisting the work of her husband was the right and proper thing to do (Burns 1978; Miller & Lemons 1998).
Thus, collaborating together, the Gilbreths extended motion studies to fatigue studies and the development of vocational rehabilitation (Wren & Bedeian 2009). They also co-authored many articles and books, even teaching Scientific Management in their Summer Schools of Scientific Management, bridging the gap between academic theories and applications to industrial problems (Schroyer 1975; Kelly & Kelly 1990). In addition, they also worked as consultants, travelling to advocated the use of psychological principles and human factors in scientific management (Kelly & Kelly 1990).
Frederick Taylor was one of the intellectual factors that influenced the Gilbreths. Working independently, Frank’s initial research of motion study coincided with Frederick Taylor’s time study, having similar objectives of eliminating motions to reduce fatigue and to improve productivity (Wren & Bedeian 2009). Thus, when Frank met Taylor in 1907, they hit it off immediately, becoming family friends and Frank soon became an advocate of Taylorism (Wren & Bedeian 2009).
However, Lillian felt that Taylor’s work should include more psychological principles and consideration for the human element (Schroyer 1975). Thus, as Lillian became Frank’s partner in both marriage and work, human factors got incorporated into the development of Gilbreths’ scientific management theories, steering their theories to take a more holistic approach (Schroyer 1975; Burns 1978). Slowly, basic philosophical differences in the management techniques broke the Gilbreth-Taylor working relation apart (Schroyer 1975; Wren & Bedeian 2009). years after Taylor’s death, in 1920, the Gilbreths published “An indictment of the Stop Watch Time Study” to comment on the inadequacies of the stop watch time studies but were careful not to criticise Taylor as an early founder of scientific management (Schroyer, 1975). The economy then had merged into the Second Industrial Revolution, where technological and economic progress had gained momentum with the development of new inventions (Stearns 1998). The Gilbreth’s Motion Study featured such an important invention from that era – film (Wren & Bedeian 2009).
Using a movie camera, each movement of a job was able to capture on film, allowing Frank to review the great number of motions repeatedly for analysis (Wren & Bedeian 2009). Small lights and time-lapse photography were also incorporated into motion study, creating the “chronocyclegraph” method of recording movement (Wren & Bedeian 2009). Even though the Industrial Revolution had increased employment opportunities, jobs often had harsh working conditions with long hours of labour (Stearns 1998).
Management treated their workers like machines, expecting them to work non-stop all day without any concern for the workers’ health (Wren & Bedeian 2009). Thus, workers were easily fatigued due to overwork. This made the Gilbreths interested in using motion studies to examine fatigue studies, because Frank believed that since every motion causes fatigue, any elimination of motions would reduce fatigue (Wren & Bedeian 2009). Thus, through intensive research, the Gilbreths found that fatigue could be reduced through proper rest breaks as well as through improvising the working environment (Wren & Bedeian 2009).
This greatly influenced the development of ergonomics – which studies how the job, equipment and workplace can be best designed to cause the least stress on the human body (Scott & Spencer 1998; Wren & Bedeian 2009). Thus, managers today, must understand that people unlike machines can get tired, and thus take into consideration the importance of psychology at the workplace in ensuring safety at work, to protect the organization’s most valuable assets – its people (Scott & Spencer 1998).
For example, fatigue studies are still being used to identify the factors that cause fatigue in working environments that require long hours of shift work such as fire-fighters and bus drivers (Takeyama et al. 2005; Biggs, Dingsdag & Stenson 2009). Furthermore, changing economical, political and social factors motivated the Gilbreths to extend motion studies to the development of vocational rehabilitation. World War I was causing millions of soldiers in both Europe and America to suffer physical disabilities (McFarland 1944; Gotcher 1992).
Even though industrial accidents had been the main factor in causing physical disabilities to workers, it was World War I that increased the number and urgency of the problem (McFarland 1944, Burns 1978). Frank was deeply dismayed by the vast numbers of wounded soldiers who found it difficult or almost impossible to obtain employment after the war (Gilbreth & Gilbreth, cited in Gotcher 1992, p. 6). The economy then could not provide adequate financial support for the millions of injured soldiers too (Gotcher 1992).
The Gilbreths believed it was a great waste to cast aside the remains of a person’s life due to injuries obtained in fulfilling one’s obligation to one’s country (Gotcher 1992). Subsequently, Frank suffered a serious attack of rheumatism, which left him paralysed from the neck down (Gotcher 1992). Edna Yost (cited in Gotcher 1992) noted that this lead the Gilbreths to identify with how the handicapped soldiers felt, to be mentally alive but physically unproductive.
These factors motivated the Gilbreths’ conviction that motion study could also do good in incorporating disabled workers into the workplace by simplifying work that was usually performed by the able-bodied into work that could also be completed by one-legged or one-handed men (Burns 1978; Gotcher 1992). Their pioneering efforts to the development of vocational rehabilitation have paid off and are now implemented. Till today, vocational rehabilitation programs are constantly changing and are available in many countries like US, Australia, Canada etc.
For example, the Nebraska Vocational Rehabilitation program has helped people with disabilities to join the workforce since 1921, where a team of experts provides direct employment services for employers and people with disabilities (Nebraska Department of Education 1921). Other than that, Vocational Rehabilitation Disability Insurance (social Security) federal grants, government grants and loans are also available to assist the disabled (Federal Grants Wire 2009).
Companies, especially the ones in the food industry are also engaging in more non-conventional hiring, believing that hiring handicaps will only benefit the company more, rather than handicap the business (Nation’s Restaurant News 20 March 2006, p. 25). After Frank’s death, Lillian continued to teach Frank’s work as well as persisted to develop vocational rehabilitation to help disabled persons perform jobs effectively and retain life activities (Burns 1978; Gotcher 1992).
Drawing from her experiences as a mother and engineer, she extended psychology into home economics, which illustrated domestic applications of scientific management to relieve inefficiencies of housework (Miller & Lemons 1998; Gotcher 1992). She also worked as a consultant with General Electric and other firms to improve the design of kitchens and household appliances (Gilbreths, cited in Gotcher 1992, p. 10). She even created new techniques to help disabled women accomplish common household tasks, extending motion study to home economics (Burns, 1978; Gotcher 1992; Miller & Lemons 1998).
However, it was not easy to re-engineer housewives’ motions and mentalities as there was a social stigma that women should bear complete responsibility for housework (Graham 1990). Since the early 1920s, utility companies have been vigorously promoting new appliances such as refrigerators, by developing home service departments and constructing demonstration kitchens at offices where women paid their monthly utility bills, in order to provoke consumer demand and promote balancing the load of housework (Graham 1990Up till today, demonstration at leading supermarkets and appliance stores are still being used.
These demonstrations still hold the same agenda as before, to both stimulate demand and address women’s uncertainty about their changing In conclusion, Lillian Gilbreth’s impact on management, her innovations in industrial design, her methodological contributions to time and motion studies, her humanization of management principles, and her role in integrating the principles of science and management are distinctive. As elaborated above, many of her theories are still being applied and implemented today.
She in undoubtly considered the founders of modern industrial management, who sought to improve workers’ productivity while making their work easier. She was, above all, a scientist who sought to teach managers that all aspects of the workplace should be constantly questioned, and improvements constantly adopted. Her work advanced appreciation for the importance of the addressing the needs of workers, and through taking care of those individuals the whole purpose would be better served.
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