Frank Bunker Gilbreth (1868-1924) and his wife Lillian Evelyn Gilbreth (1878-1972) were pillars of the Scientific Management movement in the first half of the 20th century.
Frank Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine - a small town in the far North East of the USA and started work at 16 as an apprentice bricklayer. From the outset he displayed an interest in analysing and improving the way work was done. He was quickly able to demonstrate that output could be nearly trebled (from 125 to 350 bricks per hour), by a series of simple changes, which included:
It was not long before the self-taught Gilbreth was boss of his own successful construction business with offices in New York, Boston, and London.
Frank's life changed after a chance meeting in 1903 with Lillie Moller, a striking young Californian, with a master's degree in English literature. They married in 1904, after which, with Lillian's encouragement, Frank Gilbreth began formalising and publishing his innovatory ideas and became more involved in consultancy work.
It should be noted that, during the first decade of the 20th century, the concepts behind Taylorism had caused increasing resentment in the US labour movement, even leading to a Congressional investigation in 1912. Intriguingly, this was the same year that the Gilbreths set up their consultancy company. With Lillian's increasing influence, the Gilbreths preached a more compassionate version of scientific management than that practiced by F.W.T. They argued that good human relations were essential, if work was to be done more effectively.
The Gilbreth marriage was a great success and they raised a formidable family of twelve. The highly regimented and often hilarious, inner workings of the large Gilbreth family were affectionately described in two best selling books: Cheaper By The Dozen; and, Belles on Their Toes written by two of Frank & Lillian's children. Both books were the basis of successful Hollywood films.
Of course, Frank & Lillian also collaborated to produce several important innovations in the analysis, measurement and management of work. These included:
Their ideas and recommendations were at the leading edge of consultancy and in some cases (e.g. the application of scientific management to surgical procedures), it was years before they were properly appreciated and implemented.
Frank Gilbreth died suddenly in 1924 and Lillian needed all her management skills to continue her work while also looking after a large family. Initially she had to overcome some prejudice in obtaining new consultancy contracts. Much of her early solo work was on gender-specific projects (e.g. a 1927 investigation into sanitary-wear for Johnson & Johnson). However she went on to serve as consultant to many multinationals (e.g. designing model kitchens for General Electric) and also found time to teach disabled homemakers to become more independent. She lectured at several US colleges including Brown, Bryn Mawr, Purdue and Rutgers, and accumulated many honorary degrees. She proved an accomplished author, as well as serving on advisory committees for every US President from Herbert Hoover to Lyndon Johnson.
By the time Lillian Gilbreth died in 1972, aged 94, her achievements with her husband and in her own right, while successfully raising a very large family, marked her out as both an exceptional human being, and a much admired pioneer of the woman's movement.