Frank Bunker Gilbreth – The search for the best way

  • Frank Bunker Gilbreth – The search for the best way

  • Frank Bunker Gilbreth – The search for the best way

Frank Bunker Gilbreth – The search for the best way


Already at the age of 16, Frank Bunker Gilbreth shows an unusual talent for observation. While watching bricklayers at work, it occurs to him that each of the men moves differently and wastes energy as a result. This observation triggers his search for the ideal work method, a method that leads Gilbreth to revolutionary results.


First, however, he learns the bricklaying trade. From apprentice he ascends to foreman and finally to management. He additionally begins optimization of the work process. Gilbreth reduces the usual 18 motions of a bricklayer to five, develops an adjustable scaffold so the bricklayers do not have to bend so much, modifies the way bricks are stacked and passed, improves further work steps and invents new handtools. These measures triple the bricklayer’s productivity without them fatiguing more quickly. The result brings Gilbreth his first distinction.


At 27 Gilbreth founds a construction company. He continues his studies, which he publishes in various works. In 1912 he gives up his prospering business to dedicate himself fully to his research. Like Taylor, with whom he is familiar, Gilbreth is also fascinated by a systematic study of work. The two never worked together, though Taylor picks up many suggestions from him. In the end their views on methodology and purposes for studying work are too diverse.


Gilbreth’s main published works are “Motion Study“ (1911) and, co-written in 1916 with his wife, Dr. Lillian Moeller Gilbreth, “Fatigue Study” – as well as “Applied Motion Study” in 1917. In this he clearly sets himself apart from Taylor. More than increasing work performance, Gilbreth is interested in the optimum work method and work plan design. Moreover, he focuses his research on low-fatigue work, proper instruction for the worker, selection of the right work clothes and similar concepts.


Above all, however, Gilbreth turns against Taylor’s time studies. He rejects the sole use of the stopwatch for quick, successive movements as inexact. Gilbreth instead establishes the study of movement. For this purpose, he turns to a new medium: film. In order to make a quick series of movements visible in detail, he fastens small lamps to the arms and legs of workers, which leave clear light trails on the film. An accompanying time gauge measures movement series exactly to the tenth of a second. Gilbreth develops a new theory: All human movements, according to his research, can be reduced to 17 basic elements of movement. Not without a little humor did he name these Therbligs, a small twist on his name spelled backward. Gilbreth’s Therbligs later give the essential impetus for the development of MTMs basic movements. In order to achieve optimum work methods regarding execution, productivity and performance, Gilbreth now begins to eliminate every Therblig that hinders work. The first step is made in developing predetermined time systems.


The search for ideal methods is for Gilbreth a philosophy which he also follows in his private life. Even with daily tasks, efficiency is the measure of all things. A loving monument was dedicated to him later by two of his 12 children in the humorous book “Cheaper by the Dozen“, which was made a movie in the US.


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