Work Simplification Pioneer – Frank Gilbreth – A Great Lean Practitioner
In 1989 my engineering career began when I completed my undergraduate studies in engineering. Some years later, I began my graduate studies in statistics at the Rochester Institute of Technology. To this point, my career was about using statistics to solve problems and improve productivity. This led to a fruitful career in research, product development, quality and productivity improvement.
Years later, I began to practice my craft in the office environment. This was a drastic change from my traditional role in manufacturing. In manufacturing, you can see the process as the raw material gets transformed to create a finished product. In this case, you can observe the process of transformation and see each step of the process. But, the office environment was a different experience. Many of the business processes were transactional and specific to the person doing the job. In these situations, many of the transactions performed were invisible. All I could see were people in front of computers and walking about during the course of their work. I soon discovered that I needed to organize and explain the work people do. Only then could I appreciate the business system and build better business processes!
I soon discovered that many of the approaches in my tool set were inadequate. None of the techniques I used in the past could explain how people work. I soon realized that the study of work is more than the typical flow diagram of boxes with a few words. At this point, I realized I was at a knowledge deficit and needed to fill the void with new knowledge. As it turned out, the knowledge had existed about 100 years ago. To my surprise, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth had published the first standard to study work and explain it as a process in 1921. Given my engineering background I was vary surprised I had not learned of this earlier. As I began to study their work I discovered they had a profound contribution to American productivity. So much so that I couldn’t ignore their work.
Today, Lean and Six Sigma continue in their popularity. So much so, one may believe they are the greatest productivity improvement approaches of all time. But, we can’t ignore the work of many early pioneers in Work Simplification. These remarkable people had a proven track record in productivity improvement across decades. There efforts saved business billions upon billions of dollars. Also impressive, is the way these early pioneers had the people that did the work be responsible for improving the way they work!
With such a successful track record, my need to learn about these early pioneers led to the Engineers Club in Dayton Ohio. If you ever get a chance, find the time to visit this shrine. Over several days, I met elders at the forefront of productivity improvement and Work Simplification in the United States decades earlier. These statesmen studied with the greats. During my time with them I studied the history, tools and techniques used by these pioneers. These industrial engineers and their students left a legacy that is the foundation of modern day Lean. Their approach, when taught to those employees that do the work, is the best employee engagement model I have ever seen in my career.
Back in the day, Work Simplification was popular. Today it’s still popular, but now, we call it Lean. There is a lot we can learn from history. Today, Lean is a concept that is new in name. But, many of the concepts we use today we borrowed and changed with pride from yesterdays thought leaders. If you don’t believe me, check out this video. It’s a black and white video collection of work simplification projects dating as far back as 1908.
Pay special attention to the footage applied to bricklaying. Frank Gilbreth led all these efforts and many more just like it. His efforts to optimize the flow of work in bricklaying are still used to this day. His work is one reason why American economic prosperity soared in the first half of the last century.
Work Simplification – Frank Gilbreth – A Great Lean Practitioner