If you had to carve a Mt. Rushmore for process improvement innovators, which four faces would you put on it?
You might have Bill Smith – the Motorola engineer who pioneered Six Sigma as we currently understand it. Henry Ford could also have a place on the mountain – the genius behind the assembly line method of manufacturing, and the man who brought affordable automobiles to the American public. Sakichi Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno, the men behind the incomparable Toyota Production System, probably round out the four faces.
But there’s a case to be made for someone else… someone you might have never heard of.
Her name was Lillian Moller Gilbreth, and she was instrumental to our modern understanding of process improvement.
The Legend of Lillian Gilbreth
There weren’t many women enrolled in school in the early 1900s. Education wasn’t a privilege for many young girls. That’s why, when Lillian Gilbreth earned her Ph.D. in psychology from Brown University in 1915, she committed herself to providing alternative life paths for ambitious, like-minded women.
To achieve that goal, she used her background in psychology and engineering to see the world in a slightly different way than everyone else.
For example, she worked to create simpler, faster ways of doing housework. That way, women could finish their house duties earlier and pursue jobs and school outside of the home. This field of study led her to a career in waste reduction, which culminated in (arguably) her most famous contribution to process improvement.
The Study of Time and Motion
Along with her husband Frank, Lillian created an industry-changing system for process efficiency.
When studying bricklayers, the Gilbreths noticed that every single worker moved in a different way. Some would bend at the knees to scoop up a brick. Others would bend at the waist. Some would turn left. Some would turn right. Some worked off a pivot foot, while others turned their bodies completely.
This was a disaster for efficiency. The Gilbreths believed that there was one single best way to lay a brick – specifically, the method that required the least amount of physical movement. So, they introduced a simple change: bricks were wheeled over to the bricklayers at waist-height. No more bending over.
That single change almost doubled productivity, and the Gilbreths were off and running.
Throughout their careers, the Gilbreths optimized workspaces of all shapes and sizes. They started their own consulting firm, and they helped companies grow and expand – even through the Great Depression.
But Lillian might be best remembered for her role in optimizing home kitchens. Always eager to make life easier for her fellow women, Lillian interviewed more than 4,000 homemakers, and totally redesigned the traditional American kitchen.
She adjusted the heights for stoves and sinks, she rearranged appliances to reduce the number of footsteps women had to take while cooking and cleaning, and invented devices like the foot-pedal trashcan lid.
Lillian’s work was revolutionary, and her brilliant mind helped define one of Lean’s eight wastes – motion. She made lives better for people everywhere, redefined what it meant to be a “career woman” in America, and earned her place among the leaders of process improvement.