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Cheaper By The Dozen: One Weird Couple and Their Time and Motion Studies

The Gilbreths as successors to Taylor are the founders of modern scientific management. Their story is fascinating: the deeper you dig, the more odd facts you discover about them.

Time and motion studies are a backbone of productivity and process improvement. Learn about the Gilbreths and their ergonomic and productivity improvement methods in this Cold Star Project solo episode:

The expert agents at Cold Star Technologies can boost your firm’s results with time and motion studies. Find out if you’re a candidate for the Red Team Experience by clicking here.

Show Notes / Transcript

Jason Kanigan 0:00
You only have so much time. And in your day, your employees have only so much time. What if they’re doing a physical task like sorting things, or moving items from one place to another, or both. Sorting and then moving.

Jason Kanigan 0:21
These things can be analyzed by something called a time and motion study.

Jason Kanigan 0:27
There was a fellow named Frederick Winslow Taylor. He was around about 100 years ago,

Jason Kanigan 0:35
in 1856 to 1915. He was an American mechanical engineer. That’s his starting point.

Jason Kanigan 0:42
And engineers like breaking things up into parts and seeing what’s there.

Jason Kanigan 0:51
A lot of people think that he’s the father of something called scientific management, which was just becoming popular at the time, including in the military.

Jason Kanigan 1:01
Up until then, you know, hey, well, line the guys up, they’ll have rifles, they’re not very good shots. Overall, we know what their range is going to be. In fact, in the Napoleonic era, they didn’t even teach you to aim.

Jason Kanigan 1:17
I want you to think about this: it was just point the weapon at the enemy, approximately, and open fire. It was about how many shots can we get in the air in a minute. That’s about it. And the army that drilled the best could shoot the most rounds

Jason Kanigan 1:36
in a minute. And that’s usually what would happen. The difference between say, two rounds a minute , and three rounds and minute fired. That’s usually what would result.

Jason Kanigan 1:47
However, after that time, something changed in the doctrine and people started thinking more about human psychology.

Jason Kanigan 1:57
What does a man need to do? Did you know it’s kind of tough to get a man to shoot to kill?

Jason Kanigan 2:04
They have to be trained to do it. It’s not natural. In earlier conflicts where people would get up close you’d find one squad shooting over the heads of the other. Scare them? Yes, absolutely. We can do that.

Jason Kanigan 2:22
But actually try and kill them? Well, that’s another story and we need to educate and drill them on how to do that and get them feeling

Jason Kanigan 2:31
comfortable with this. There’s a YouTuber named LindyBeige, that’s his channel, Lindy and Beige like the color, who did a video about this couple years ago that I really liked.

Jason Kanigan 2:43
So back to this Taylor guy.

Jason Kanigan 2:46
Peter Drucker, who’s one of these fathers of modern management science, said Frederick Taylor was “the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s scientific management rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last 75 years, which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well to do. Taylor though the Isaac Newton or perhaps the Archimedes of the science of work laid only first foundations, however, not much has been added to them since even though he has been dead all of 60 years.” This is quite some time ago that Drucker was saying that,

Jason Kanigan 3:35
but I think the point is still accurate. What has been done?

Jason Kanigan 3:40
What did Taylor talk about? He talked about four principles.

Jason Kanigan 3:46
Take rule of thumb work methods, and replace them with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.

Jason Kanigan 3:53
Wow, huh. Instead of just doing the things the way we’ve done them before, that sort of cow path mentality I’ve talked about in previous episodes, let’s actually analyze the thing.

Jason Kanigan 4:06
Second point, scientifically select, train and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.

Jason Kanigan 4:16
Again, another “duh” moment, but I can tell you in my history, in the late 90s, as a salesperson for an electronics company, I was given the product manual, the price list, a cubicle with a phone, and a computer and Hey, have a good time, man.

Jason Kanigan 4:35
No training at all, not even a consistent sales process. And these people had three buildings full of employees. It was a bustling business.

Jason Kanigan 4:46
Somehow, they were succeeding on the aggregate, but how much better could they have done if they had followed Taylor’s second principle? The third principle of Taylor here is provide detailed instruction and supervision of each worker, and the performance of that worker’s discrete task. I want you to note the word discrete there: that means it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Jason Kanigan 5:09
The fourth principle: divide the work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks. That’s very interesting.

Jason Kanigan 5:24
Pretty different. Taylor’s always talking about enforced standardization of methods, you have to have standards and it’s management’s responsibility to develop those standards and enforce them

Jason Kanigan 5:40
Now, in an era of co-creation, I would suggest that co-creating those standards least after a while, once the employee gets some experience, right, with them would be a good idea.

Jason Kanigan 5:56
So who follows Taylor? There’s a couple that follow Taylor. They’re named the Gilbreths, and they start their lives around 10-20 years later than

Jason Kanigan 6:12
Taylor. They’re named the Gilbreths, and the Gilbreths are an interesting couple. The more I dig into them, the more kind of odd they become. I mean first of all, they had 12 kids. 12 children that lived. Their son, Frank Jr., wrote a book called Cheaper By The Dozen. You may have heard of the movie Cheaper By The Dozen. It stars Steve Martin and bears no resemblance to the book whatsoever. There was also a film in the 40s more based on the book.

Jason Kanigan 6:45
There’s very little that’s taken from the original to the 2003 movie.

Jason Kanigan 6:51
So you get this guy, Frank Gilbreth, Sr., and his wife, Lillian Moller Gilbreth,

Jason Kanigan 6:59
and they’re industrial engineers. Lillian was one of the first women to be given a PhD in engineering: that’s very cool. And they’re efficiency experts who contribute to this study of industrial engineering, and their thing is called motion study. Now, Frank serves in the US Army in World War One.

Jason Kanigan 7:19
Remember of the American army comes in late, they have some things to learn: a lot of piss and vinegar, but things have been going on for several years now. And the French and the English and the Germans are pretty used to what’s going on. But that also means that the Americans have the chance to look at things with a fresh point of view. So what Gilbreth is trying to do is find more efficient means of assembling and disassembling pistols, small arms.

Jason Kanigan 7:49
And he gets this classification system going that says, Well, I can do all this hand motion stuff with just 17 basic motions. That’s amazing. He takes his last name and flips it around a little bit to call it Therbligs.

Jason Kanigan 8:05
That’s the unit of measurement that he’s using, these 17 motions. And he says there is one best way to do these things, to make these motions That’s very interesting.

Jason Kanigan 8:15
I’m also extremely cautious of that based on my experience with ideas like AutoCAD. Alright, I started learning AutoCAD when I was 18 years old. There’s many ways to put something like a circle on the end of a stick.

Jason Kanigan 8:35
I can use many functions to do that. So here’s a guy who’s saying no, there’s only one right way. Now we are limited to the human body.

Jason Kanigan 8:44
What are the Gilbreths adding to Taylor here? Taylor is about time. He wants to take the processing time of things and cut them down, make it shorter, faster, right? The Gilbreths are about reducing the number of motions involved, which is an interesting deeper level. If you think about, it’s going to cut the time if I can cut the number of motions involved.

Jason Kanigan 9:10
But there’s also something else going on, an ergonomic sense of things here, right? Where if I can reduce the number of motions, the person doing them is going to get tired less quickly. So you need a stopwatch and you need a camera. You can do these today on your own, time and motion studies. So how do you do a time motion study?

Jason Kanigan 9:31
Well, first of all, you document the standard way of doing things. Okay, we’re going to define it, we’re going to write down, we’re going to film it with a stopwatch. Then we’re going to divide the task into these elements that could be these Gilbreth, Therglib motion things; it can be something else, and then we time the work elements so that we can see, well, how long do these things actually take.

Jason Kanigan 10:00
That’s the filming part, with the stopwatch. And then we’re going to evaluate the worker who we’re watching, their pace relative to the standard performance, so that we can figure out what’s a normal time for doing this? And then we’re going to collect all these different people doing the task over and over again and come up with an average that gives us the normalized time.

Jason Kanigan 10:23
Finally we’re going to apply a coefficient, an allowance, to the normal time to give them a little extra and get the standard time. And now we’re going to have a standard time for this task. Now what goes on with the Gilbreths? I said, if you dig into them, they become more and more interesting. Frank is 55 years old in 1924. He’s talking to his wife on a phone in New Jersey at a railway station and drops dead at the age of 55.

Jason Kanigan 10:53
Lillian goes on to outlive him. She lives till 1972.

Jason Kanigan 10:57
She lives 93 years. So the genes in this family were pretty good. I don’t know good Frank’s were. But Lillian’s we’re definitely very good and the average age of their kids is pretty long too. So Lillian has an opportunity for a much longer career. I mean, she practically lives a whole other lifetime beyond Frank. They’re writing papers. They’re authoring books and they come up with this methodology called the Gilbreth System, using this slogan, ‘The one best way to do work,’ which again is a little scary to me, but I can understand where they’re coming from.

Jason Kanigan 11:33
Lillian eventually gets into government work, because she’s friends with Herbert Hoover and his wife. She gets involved with the Girl Scouts. And as the Great Depression begins she’s heading the women’s section of something called the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment, looking to reduce unemployment for women’s groups.

Jason Kanigan 11:53
And she’s active all the way through Harry Truman’s era and the Korean War. So if you’ve got people doing tasks over and over again, not one off things, but something that’s repetitive, a time emotion study could be the right thing for you. You can watch some of their original films, they’re on YouTube, of the Gilbreths and see what they’re doing. It’s quite interesting.

Jason Kanigan 12:18
I was watching an episode of James Burke’s Connections and that reminded me of the Gilbreths because he mentioned them and he showed a piece of their footage. The key takeaway here is to not accept things as the way they are or to think just because you’ve got maybe even a written down process for something that is the best way. It’s very likely that with the right kind of approach, you can come up with a better solution.

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