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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Is Frank Bunker Gilbreth Senior The Greatest Man Maine Ever Produced?

Frank Gilbreth was born in Fairfield, Maine, in 1868. He never went to college except to teach at Purdue eventually. He’s famous, in a way, and anonymous in another. He’s the father portrayed in the original Cheaper By The Dozen, using a stopwatch to figure out how to make his family more efficient. That was his thing –efficiency.

He was a bricklayer. Built houses. He got to wondering if the repetition of laying one oblong slug of fired clay atop two others in a bed of mortar could be improved by observing the motions of skilled persons, breaking these exertions down into their component movements, and eliminating the wasted motions in the routines.  It can, and he did. I’ve been a hod carrier and mason tender, and I can tell you that working off the ground or a platform the same height as your feet would be backbreaking and slow way to assemble masonry. We always used the footing form boards and leftover planks to assemble ad hoc shelves just lower than waist height behind the mason so that they could turn and pick up a brick and some mortar and go back to the next slot in the wall. I had no idea Clifton Webb, er, Frank Gilbreth came up with the idea less than a century before. It would be literally impossible to calculate how much time, money, effort, and  how many worker’s backs Frank Gilbreth (and his wife, who was his partner and carried on after his early death) saved anonymously. His method is now universal and uncontroversial. How many people are incalculably useful to their fellow men?

Gilbreth’s ghost is in so many well-known aspects of everyday life that you can’t hope to find them all. He’s in here, in a scene that’s repeated one way or another in so many movies you can’t count them, never mind the tens of millions of real-life examples:

It’s Gilbreth’s method that’s used to train soldiers to be able to disassemble and reassemble the components of their small arms, even if they are in total darkness. It’s not a pointless trick; if your weapon doesn’t work and you can’t fix it under any conditions, including at night, you might pay for it with your life.

Want more? How about this:

Guess whose idea it was for a nurse to organize and hand instruments as called for to a surgeon. Think of how ubiquitous that method is. It’s universal and uncontroversial. How many people could tell you it was Gilbreth’s idea?

There was a contemporaneous and competing version of efficiency expert abroad in the land with Frank and his wife: Taylorism.

Frederick Taylor is the progenitor of so many things that are in the common language today that he deserves to be discussed with the most influential people of his time. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Almost all the fruit of Taylor’s tree is rotten.

Taylor is the guy standing behind dehumanized workers with a stopwatch, keeping track of bathroom breaks, and generally treating all work as a series of unrelated steps that any unskilled human could do, and constantly finding new ways of measuring it and subdividing it to harangue a little more out of the continually less and less skilled worker. “Scientific Management,” they called it. The Soviet Union loved it. They thought all people were just cogs in a big machine anyway. Most of the terms for malingering in dead-end jobs come from Taylorism. Goldbricking. Dogging it. Taylor observed that when normal people are in a group and everyone has the same duties, it is human nature for everyone in the group to devolve and perform at the level of the least capable and energetic member. His solution was a big expansion of management. He is the busted idol of micromanagement, and by extension, big government.

Taylorism is often touted as the reason you need unions. I don’t see it. The death embrace of unionized workers finding dignity in organized heel-dragging while management tries to find ways to lay everyone off is the most soul-destroying work setting I’ve encountered. Workers are just slaves with two masters instead of one, afraid to work too hard to suit the union, afraid to work too little for the boss. Unionized Taylorism simply puts off the benefits of creative destruction until in the end it leads to just plain destruction. See Detroit. Eventually Taylorism leads to management giving up and finding people for the mind-numbing work overseas, where the boss is the union and the government and the Pinkertons and the mafia rolled into one.

Gilbreth believed in craftsmanship, and in the dignity of productive work. His efficiencies were certainly scientific, in the true sense of the word, but he didn’t look at people as robots, or worse, as farm animals. Look at Taylor’s most famous nostrum for the men he observed unloading pig iron ingots at a factory:

…the labor should include rest breaks so that the worker has time to
recover from fatigue. Now one of the very first requirements for a man
who is fit to handle pig iron as a regular occupation is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic
that he more nearly resembles in his mental make-up the ox than any
other type. The man who is mentally alert and intelligent is for this
very reason entirely unsuited to what would, for him, be the grinding
monotony of work of this character. Therefore the workman who is best
suited to handling pig iron is unable to understand the real science of
doing this class of work.

That is a profoundly malignant view of your fellow human beings. That view of the world is on display on every Internet comment section I’ve ever seen, now disguised as referring to people capable of only asking if you want fries with that. Unionizing the situation, or keeping the management in one country and the oxen in another (yeah, Apple, I’m looking at you) doesn’t alter the disdain the people in charge have for the people that work for them.

I like Gilbreth’s world of meaningful work that’s freed from plain drudgery, and I try to live in it, but it’s getting near impossible for the average person to cobble it together now. You don’t have to coerce people to follow sound advice. The government at all levels is all coercion, all the time, about everything, and in their hearts most government functionaries of both parties have a profound contempt for their constituents, and they get elected solely on assembling a coalition of voters with a profound contempt for just under half of their fellow citizens. Businesses solve all their problems by Taylor-ing their jobs overseas, and locally just annoy their white collar workers with Six Sigma slogans and cover pages for their TPS reports until they can find a javascript widget to do their job, too. Everyone’s angry and envious of everyone else, and no one knows how to do much except some weird little sliver of a byzantine process to earn their keep. Everyone thinks they have the right to micromanage everyone else’s life, right down to the lightbulbs and happy meals.

The abolition of drudgery through efficiency should allow people to be craftsmen, and scholars and healers, and counselors, and other meaningful things, and so have rich full lives — not make them obsolete and useless to themselves and everyone else.

Gilbreth or Taylor. Choose. I’m afraid we already have, and chose very, very wrong.

21 Responses

  1. "This too shall pass", Sipp. Maybe not in one's lifetime, but eventually even the worst of humanity falls from fashion. See Dickens' England. See Pepys' London. Were these golden ages of society, or the very depths of hell? Chin up.

  2. I've often thought that one of the most important things I can teach my children as they grow up is that there's no shame in any job done with dignity. Of course, the work environment can be a soul killer, but that is true regardless of the type of work one does. There is no shame in working in fast food, nor in physical labor, nor in cleaning up after others. There is shame in being shiftless, irresponsible and whiny, which is just as true for the highest status white collar workers as for the guy sitting on his girlfriend's couch, holding out for a management position.

    My kids may be some of the only ones around to learn that lesson, but if so I suspect their job prospects will be pretty much unlimited, whatever they choose to do to earn their keep.

  3. Almost forgot: thanks for the intro to Mr. Gilbreth. I'll have to remember him – the kids could learn a thing or two from a guy like that.

  4. Bravo, well put and well written. I wrote a similar piece some time ago sighting an "Intelligence gap" between the the person that designs the next computer program that allows a window person (user of the program) to hand the items to the buyer with minimal brain wave activity. The intelligence gap widens and so does the wage gap. Then along comes a societal do-gooder asks for a living wage for a job position that a robot could do better and cheaper.

  5. Very good. These are things I intuitively figured out, on a very small scale, to run a household… Well said. It is no wonder I chafe under regulations.

  6. Thanks for the info! Like Norman Borlaug, another genius (in the true sense of the word) of inestimable value, sadly little remembered. I must plead mea culpa for my ignorance of too many such men until recently.

    "The government at all levels is all coercion, all the time, about everything, …"
    Yes, they won't be satisfied until whatever's not forbidden will be mandatory.

  7. I read "Cheaper by the Dozen" as a child – very funny and poignant book. A telling passage was when the then-version of "Planned Parenthood" in New Jersey dropped in and ran in horror when they found out the Gilbreth's had 12 children.
    It is the Hamiltonian version of America industry, commerce and prosperty versus the Rouseau vision of man vs. man, all the time.
    Coolidge once said that "The business of America is business", which is oft quoted. But later in the same speech he said,"The purpose of America is idealism."
    Through efficient and valuable labor, free men (and women) would have time to think and be idealists.


  8. I keep reading this; as has already been noted, it's a wonderful piece, both in content and style. Bravo. I've worked in both situations, of course, and can testify to the beauty of one and the iniquity of the other.

    Another little-known genius is W. Edwards Deming, who was a statistician responsible for the rebuilding of Japan's industrial capabilities after WWII, and ultimately the source of Japan's ascendancy as the economic engine of Asia.

    Deming's teaching was the basis for the Total Quality Management movement in the U.S. (which I taught in the '90s,) originally a solid common-sense solution for the massive inefficiency prevalent in U.S. corporations of the '50s and '60s. Unfortunately, his philosophies were bowdlerized to the extent that they became the justification for Taylorism. Every time you encounter one of those deeply meaningless tangled-syntax "Mission Statements" so prevalent on corporate websites, somebody has been mis-applying Deming's teaching.

    Unfortunately, there will always be with us those who could fuck up a wet dream.

  9. "Everyone thinks they have the right to micromanage everyone else's life, right down to the lightbulbs and happy meals"

    Yet why do so many self-styled "conservative" have a distrust of the State except when it's murdering, torturing or throwing people in cages?

  10. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Little Round Top at Gettysburg would be a close second, if not first, considering what might have happened if the Union flank had been turned.

  11. A stirring (literally) essay. I've had this place bookmarked for a long while, but I haven't spent near enough actual time here.

    I teach marketing at Redacted State University somewhere in New England, and I strongly advocate entrepreneurship for any of my students with the least inclination in that direction. It's not the same thing as one is saying in the essay, but I think it's related.

  12. Hi Ken- Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Hey, small world; I got an honorary degree from Redacted State University!

    I put it on the mantel next to the bowling trophy, mostly because the investiture ceremony was held in a bowling alley lounge and it makes more sense than alphabetical.

  13. It was a pleasure to read this post.My mind shot back to the days when I was studying Industrial Management. I didn't know his influence extended so far. I've still got my collection of 'Therbligs'. One of my college tutors had actually met Lillian Gilbreth. Since reading the post my memory has been delving deep and reminding me of the others I studied such as Mary Taylor Follett, Chris Argyris, Herzberg, Henri Feyol and so on. Thanks for reminding me about all this.

  14. Thanks for reading and commenting.
    For those that don't know, a "therblig" was Gilbreth's name for a motion, or action, that was part of a routine of actions. It's his name, spelled backwards.

  15. Therbligs! I love both Cheaper by the Dozen (the book) and its sequel, written by two of the Gilbreth children, and there's a third, too, that I haven't read in quite a while.

    Very interesting to me how two men in the same line of work could go off in such radically different directions. Think maybe it was the level of respect each man had for the actual work, although according to his children Gilbreth used to start a factory tour by saying he wanted to see the laziest man they had–because that man would already have broken down his motions into the most efficient possible. NOT because he did as little work as possible. The contrast is very sad.

  16. Actually, I did know about Gilbreth and surgical instruments, and the bricklaying, and I still bathe myself, fifty years after reading about it, the way his kids described in their book. And yes, I still meet people who think I should do a task mindlessly and that I am a little weird because I try to develop efficient technique. The motive of humanizing work actually comes through in his kids' book, in precepts quoted and in the general context. Thanks for writing this excellent piece. Michael Adams

  17. This is rather humorous. Yea my great great great great grandfather was in this movie as i have several signed copies and all his journals from 1874-1923? something like that.. I have a picture and a bunch of things he built and drawings he did. have his tools.

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