Lillian Moller Gilbreth: Hero and Role Model

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One of my heroes, Lillian Moller Gilbreth, was born on this date in 1878. I discovered her early in my career. I was recently discharged from the Marines, going to college, and working full time. I was learning industrial engineering and discovering seminal management writers. Her name kept popping up in management and engineering and psychology. Here’s an outline of her story.

Lillian Moller was born in Oakland, California and went to the University of California in Berkeley. When she graduated with a degree in English in 1900 she became the first woman commencement speaker at Cal. She went to Columbia to work on a Master’s in psychology, but illness forced her to return home. So, she switched back to English and completed her masters at Cal in 1902.

Then she did the work to obtain her PhD from Cal in psychology, all the way through writing her dissertation. But the university denied her the degree because she did not meet residency requirements. The university required doctoral candidates to live in California for the final year of the PhD program, but Lillian was living in New York.

In 1903, on a trip to Europe, she met Frank Bunker Gilbreth who owned a contracting business with offices in New York, Boston, and London. They married in Oakland in 1904 and lived in New York. The dissertation was eventually published in 1914 as The Psychology of Management, the first book on the subject of “human factors” in management.

When the couple moved to Providence, Lillian enrolled at Brown where she earned a PhD in psychology. Her dissertation was: “Some Aspects of Eliminating Waste in Teaching.” Many consider it the first industrial engineering degree.

She and Frank set up a consulting business and two became pioneers in time and motion study. They identified eighteen elemental motions, which they named “therbligs,” a play on Gilbreth. Among many ideas that they shared was that Frederick Winslow Taylor’s “Scientific Management” failed to account for the human element. They formed a company to come up with something better.

Somewhere along the way, they decided to have twelve children. Their thinking was that they were management consultants, after all, and a team, so they’d be able to deal with any problems. The couple had the twelve children and their family adventures were chronicled in the books and movies, “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Belles on Their Toes.”

One fact of their life was that while they were a partnership supporting each other, the outside world saw things differently. Frank never went to college and Lillian had a several degrees, but Frank’s name always appeared first on books and publications. Very often Lillian’s name was not mentioned at all or rendered as “L. M. Gilbreth” because editors thought readers would discount research by a woman.

When Frank died suddenly in 1924, on his way to deliver a speech, Lillian, arranged for her children’s care, then delivered the speech. When she returned home, she faced the challenge of carrying on the business while raising her children.

She took the unusual (for the time) step of setting up her office in her home. The first years weren’t easy. Many companies either cancelled their contracts or failed to renew them because they didn’t think a woman could provide good advice.

Things changed when she did a project for Macy’s. The changes she recommended increased productivity dramatically. Macy’s asked her to train one of their executives in her methods so he could train others in the company. Soon other companies were lining up to ask her for help.

She worked as a management consultant for companies like General Electric and as a market research and product designer for Johnson and Johnson. She worked with the government on issues of women in the workforce and helped design an ideal kitchen for display at the Chicago World’s Fair (she invented the work triangle used in kitchen planning and the door shelves for refrigerators).

She began teaching courses for managers, which resulted in invitations to teach at colleges and universities. Lillian became a full professor at Purdue in 1935, where she also advised the dean on careers for women.

Lillian continued working and writing and teaching until shortly before she died at 93. The range and importance of her work and contributions are staggering. Engineers claim her as one of their own and so do psychologists.

Lillian Gilbreth is one of my heroes. She inspires me with the broad range of areas where she made significant contributions. She was one of the first people to combine the efficiency of engineering solutions with concern for how people work. If you’re a woman, it would be hard to find a more impressive role model. If you’re a boss she’s the source of powerful advice.

Boss’s Bottom Line

Lillian Moller Gilbreth’s life is a monument to linking concern for getting the job done in a way that’s operationally efficient and human-friendly.

Additional Resources

Lillian Gilbreth: First Lady of Engineering (A video from Purdue University)

From the American Psychological Association: Biography of Lilian Evelyn Moller Gilbreth

From the San Diego Supercomputer Center: Mother of Modern Management

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