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The Management Theory of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
Updated Jan 23, 2023

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth stressed one way to get the job done.

Husband and wife Frank and Lillian Gilbreth believed in regulation and consistency in the workplace. Rather than encouraging a company of many working parts, they valued efficiency above all else. The couple believed there is one best way to get any job done and that process should be replicated through the manufacturing process, eliminating extraneous steps and producing the most efficient results.

Frank stated the method’s “fundamental aim is the elimination of waste, the attainment of worthwhile desired results with the least necessary amount of time and effort.”

The management theory of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

1. Reduce the number of motions in a task.

When working as a bricklayer, Frank would find the “one best way” to do each task required for his work, which led to him becoming the chief superintendent after 10 years and gave him a thorough understanding of the laborer’s lifestyle and experience. Drawing on this knowledge, Frank and Lillian coined the term “therbligs,” a reversal of the sounds in their last name, to describe elemental motions required for workplace tasks. They used these 18 units to analyze how tasks were completed – searching for an object with eyes or hands, grasping an object with hands, assembling and disassembling two parts, etc. From there, they’d figure out which motions were necessary, then eliminate any unnecessary motions to increase efficiency. For example, during surgery, doctors ask for instruments that are then handed to them by a nurse instead of searching for the instrument themselves. Because nurses and doctors have separate tasks, they can focus on them and perform them in a skillful, timely manner. 

Bottom LineFun Fact: Cheaper by the Dozen, written by Frank and his daughter Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, is based on Frank, Lillian and their 12 children.

2. Focus on the incremental study of motions and time.

As engineers, Frank and Lillian closely studied motion and time to calculate the most efficient way to complete a given task. Taking the scientific approach, they measured time and motion to 1/2000 of a second using photography to understand what works best. Their insight was unlike that of most other theorists, as they channeled physical science rather than psychology. In their studies, Frank and Lillian often referenced the movement of their many children, whom they invited to join their efficiency experiments. 

3. Increase efficiency to increase profit and worker satisfaction.

Your main goal as a leader should be increasing efficiency in each individual employee, and in the organization as a whole. Frank and Lillian believed fundamentally that happy, healthy workers were vital to an efficient, successful workplace. They prioritized finding a method of optimization that would boost profits without sacrificing the health, safety or well-being of workers. By cutting any unnecessary movements, the couple reasoned, employee fatigue lessened, allowing them to do better work for longer and feel less exhausted by their workday – and profits improved. In fact, the Gilbreths asked companies that benefited from their methods to increase wages for employees. 

Did you know?Did you know? Mary Parker Follett has an entire system for leaders to best communicate, collaborate and support their employees.

How to implement the Gilbreths’ management theory

Rearrange workspaces

Lillian and Frank paid careful attention to every aspect of the workplace to find the best way to support the people in it. Evaluate your own workspace. How could your layout be more efficient? Do you often need to walk to another area or floor for materials or to print something? Moving that object or machine to the same floor as your main work can cut down all of the wasted time traversing to it. Do you often use a stapler throughout your day? Instead of putting it away after each use, keep it on your desk to minimize wasted movement retrieving it. You want to create a workspace that boosts productivity.

You can also organize your employees based on the same principle. If you have people working on related projects, you can seat their desks near each other so they can easily ask each other questions or pass on tasks. If your team members are working on different steps in a process, you can arrange them in order of that process so materials can literally move down the line as they work. 

Establish standard operating procedures

A major waste of time in many workplaces is reinventing the wheel. Employees have to waste their own time to figure out how to do something that was actually already figured out. Whether through poor communication processes or a lack of onboarding, the employee has no knowledge of or access to that previous work. 

Solve the problem by creating an easy-to-access resource of standard operating procedures (SOPs) inspired by the ideas and methods of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. Make the “one best way” to do something your standard procedure for doing it. Ideally, you can have SOP materials or instructions in multiple places, print and digital formats, and walk through them multiple times with new employees. Be patient and encouraging as you ask your employees to transition to the new method. If you have a larger number of employees or multiple teams working on different projects, you should set up a time to review SOPs together. After all, your SOPs are useful only if they truly are standard. 

TipTip: If you’re looking to do a more conceptual reorganization of your business, take a look at Henry Mintzberg’s ideas, which outline reevaluating and redistributing responsibilities for clarity and flow.

Ask employees for their input

No one knows what your employees need better than those employees themselves. The last thing you want is to devise a whole new system to improve your organization’s productivity and actually have it hinder your team’s success because it was misinformed or one-sided. Check in with them to see what they find bothersome or what is slowing down their workdays. You may be surprised to hear what they have to say.

Is their computer’s performance slowing them down? Would they benefit from having a second screen? Is there something they are required to do in-house that vamps time and energy out of other, more important projects?

When asking your employees for their input, make sure to make it a low-stakes situation. You want your employees to be open and honest with you to better the company overall. That can’t happen if they’re afraid you may not like what they have to say. Consider using an anonymous method for suggestions so your team can speak freely. 

Additional reporting by Sammi Caramela.

Image Credit: Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock
Sean Peek
Sean Peek
business.com Contributing Writer
business.comb.
Sean Peek has written more than 100 B2B-focused articles on various subjects including business technology, marketing and business finance. In addition to researching trends, reviewing products and writing articles that help small business owners, Sean runs a content marketing agency that creates high-quality editorial content for both B2B and B2C businesses.