Monday, August 15, 2011

Lillian Moller Gilbreth

Lillian Moller Gilbreth (1878-1972) is today’s Awesome Woman. She could have been up here simply for mothering alone. She and her husband, efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth, Sr., had twelve children, and ran their family as sort of a test laboratory for their principles of “motion study.” Motion study was the practice of studying a particular task (anything from tooth brushing to a complex factory assembly line), breaking it down into its components, then figuring out how to save time and motions during the task. The Gilbreth children had their lives geared for efficiency--from their 2 minute baths (start with the soap up one side, down with the other) to family meetings to determine matters from who should paint the fence to whether or not buying a dog would be a good idea. (I urge you to rush to your library and pick up “Cheaper by the Dozen,” a memoir of growing up by Gilbreth kids Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Go on. I’ll wait.*)

Frank Gilbreth Sr., a boisterous, domineering figure, was the public face of the Gilbreth motion study consulting business, but Lillian was involved as he was. After his death, she wanted to take over their practice where they left off, but found that companies wouldn’t hire a women for such high-level work. She finally found a some jobs consulting on accounts deemed more womanly, and helped designed an “efficiency kitchen.” She developed a triangular set up of work stations anchored by a refrigerator, oven and sink that’s still used today. In 1926, she became the first woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

According to “Engineer Girl” (http://www.engineergirl.or​g/?id=11843):

She was the first person to integrate psychology into concepts of industrial management. During the Great Depression, President Hoover asked her to join the Emergency Committee for Unemployment. While on this committee, she created a successful nationwide program, "Share the Work," that created many new jobs. During World War II, Lillian worked has a consultant for the government. She oversaw the conversion of factories to military bases and war plants. Lillian is credited with many inventions. These inventions include the foot-pedal trash can and refrigerator door shelves.
Notes the “McHenry County Turning Point” (http://www.mchenrycountytu​​9):
Her work transformed factories and offices and led to the understanding that better conditions for workers can lead to more efficient profitable factories. She also transformed the American home, making life a little easier for anyone who had to pack a lunch, dust a windowsill or peel a potato.
And through it all, she was also a damn good mother. As Frank Jr. and Ernestine remarked: “Dad said he only had 12 children; mother had 12 only children."

* The 1940s film versions of the family’s story, “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Belles on their Toes,” are also good--Myrna Loy as Lillian!-- but should not be confused with the later Steve Martin “Cheaper by the Dozen” films which are rubbish.