If you’re a fan of the 2003 movie “Cheaper by the Dozen,” starring Steve Martin, you already know a lot about Frank Gilbreth, a true manufacturing hero. While the movie, written by two of his children as well as some Hollywood insiders, was filmed for laughs, Gilbreth was serious about his belief in the scientific method.
Frank Bunker Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine on July 7, 1868. His father died when he was less than four years old, so his mother moved the family to Massachusetts, where she taught school and rented rooms to boarders. After high school, Gilbreth decided to forego college and get a job to allow his mother to stop renting rooms in their home.
Gilbreth would go on to work as a day laborer and bricklayer at the Widden Construction Company, owned by his former teacher.
The One Best Way
A keen observer, Frank Gilbreth noticed that each bricklayer had a unique method for carrying and laying bricks. The various methods had a discernible effect on the workers’ productivity. Fascinated by his observations, he began looking for the “one best way.”
His first patented invention, a multilevel scaffold that kept the bricks within reach of the bricklayers, arose from this period of observation. He went on to patent several of his other ideas as they pertained to efficiency. Despite Gilbreth’s contributions, Widden refused to make Gilbreth a partner and at the age of 27, he resigned. His final position at Widden Construction was superintendent.
In 1904, Gilbreth married Lillian Moller, who was also an industrial engineer. The two started a company focused on streamlining the actions of workers. They applied social sciences to industry and worked to change the work methods rather than the work environment as Frederick Winslow Taylor did.
Inventing Time and Motion Studies
The Gilbreths invented a method of time and motion study, analyzing the mechanics and movements of activities and eventually coined the term “therblig” to reference small motions. In a notable study on productivity improvement, they found that reducing unnecessary motions helped stave off worker fatigue and improved quality by eliminating errors. This focus on reducing unnecessary motion is a key tenet of lean manufacturing.
Their research also influenced workplace design, including intricate details such as chair height and tool placement. It was the earliest attempt at developing workplace standards and became the basis of the modern science of ergonomics.
Practical Use of His Theories
The Gilbreths had 12 children together and often tried out their methods on members of the family. Any parent will understand the difficulties of getting a child to operate efficiently, but the Gilbreths were undaunted.
Their children, Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey wrote the book “Cheaper by the Dozen” in 1948. The humorous book made a good basis for movies and was filmed in 1950 as well as the version referenced earlier with Steve Martin.
Gilbreth went on to teach at Purdue University and several other prestigious universities. He published numerous books and articles on his research, including “Applied Motion Study,” which was written with his wife. The book, published in 1919, was one of six he wrote. Gilbreth pioneered the idea of using motion photography during surgery to serve as a teaching tool for prospective surgeons. He also served as a consultant to the U.S. Army on methods of teaching recruits to maintain their weapons effectively.
Gilbreth died of a heart attack in 1924, but his contributions to real efficiency live on.
How has Frank Gilbreth’s methods of efficiency improvement impacted your manufacturing processes? Discover other Heroes of Manufacturing and learn more about the visionaries that transformed the world of manufacturing.