Gilbreth

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BUSINESS AND ECONOMIC HISTORY, Second Series, Volume Eighteen, 1989. Copyright (c) 1989 by the Business History Conference. ISSN 0849-6825

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and the Manufacture and Marketing of Motion Study, 1908-1924 BRIAN PRICE The Evergreen State College Even as large-scale enterprises increasingly integrated the manufacture and marketing of mass-produced goods in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scientific managers elaborated and popularized their efficiency methods and strategies in an attempt to carve out a distinctive scientific professional niche within the changing industrial world. No one worked more assiduously in this effort than Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, and no one was more conscious of the intimate relationship between the manufacture and the marketing of an innovative product. Indeed, my central argument is that the Gilbreths’ fame and reputation is due less to the inherent quality of their motion study techniques, or to their achievements in practical motion study and scientific management installation, than to their prolific efforts to publicize both themselves as humane scientists and their principles and techniques as conducive to greater efficiency and workplace harmony. In fact, in a period characterized by rapidly changing business dynamics and troubled labor-management relations, the Gilbreths found that their motion study methods, though sound in theory, at best produced only partial and temporary efficiencies in practice, and more often than not exacerbated tensions, not only between the workers and managers they were supposed to reconcile, but also among scientific managers themselves. Ultimately, the Gilbreths simply were less successful as manufacturers than as marketers of their motion study strategies. That their strategies and techniques survived and prospered is testimony less to their intrinsic worth as they practiced them than to the image of their worth which the Gilbreths carefully cultivated. Prior to his celebrated meeting with Frederick W. Taylor in December 1907, Frank Gilbreth had acquired renown as an innovative building contractor. His reputation was based on speed work achieved by mechanical innovations (an adjustable bricklayer’s scaffold and cement mixers), systematic management (coordinating activities on and among construction sites, generating labor efficiency), and advertising publicity employing glossy pamphlets replete with photographs, many of them chronological images displaying his buildings in progressive stages of completion [6, 7, 8, 10, 11]. Gilbreth did not approach Taylor as a nail, therefore, but rather as one who saw himself with as much to teach as to learn. Thus, even as he read Taylor’s works and employed his acolytes to introduce time study for task and piece rate setting on his building sites, Gilbreth began putting into action new bricklaying methods, publishing them in his Bricklaying System with the announcement that, “The motion study

in this book is but the beginning of an era in motion study, that will eventually affect all of our methods of teaching the trades ... and increase the efficiency and wages of the workman” [6, p. 140]. The motion study Gilbreth inaugurated was dependent initially on simple trial-and-error methods. Thus, in renovating bricklaying methods he used his adjustable scaffold to keep his workers level with the, wall they built so as to eliminate the motion of stooping; he arranged mortar and bricks to eliminate reaching; and he simplified the labor process so that a bricklayer could repetitiously grab a brick and trowelful of mortar simultaneously, swivel, and simultaneously deposit mortar in the furthest tier of bricks and the brick in the next closest. Thus he claimed to reduce the bricklayers’ motions from as many as 18 to as few as 4-1/2 [6, pp. 148-51]. Gilbreth’s achievement gained him considerable public acclaim [2] but the acclaim was by no means universal. Brick masons in particular reacted to...
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