Born: Oakland, California, May 24, 1878
Died: Phoenix, Arizona, January 2, 1972
Mother of Modern Management
Lillian Gilbreth was the mother of modern management. Together with her husband Frank, she pioneered industrial management techniques still in use today. She was one of the first "superwomen" to combine a career with her home life. She was a prolific author, the recipient of many honorary degrees, and the mother of 12. She is perhaps best remembered for motherhood. Her children wrote the popular books Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes about their experiences growing up with such a large and famous family. But Lillian Moller Gilbreth was not only a mother; she was an engineer and an industrial psychologist.
Lillian excelled in high school and decided that she wanted to study literature and music. Her father did not believe in higher education for women. He felt they needed only enough knowledge to manage a home gracefully. But Lillian persuaded him to let her attend the University of California at Berkeley while living at home and maintaining her family duties. When she obtained her B.A. in literature in 1900, she was the first woman to speak at a University of California commencement.
She went to Columbia, but illness forced a return to California after her first year. Undaunted, she went back to Berkeley and received a master's degree in literature in 1902. She celebrated by planning a vacation. She spent some time in Boston before embarking, and there she met her future husband.
Frank Gilbreth, who never went to college, was interested in efficiency in the workplace. His enthusiasm for the subject was contagious. He proposed to Lillian Moller three weeks after her return from Europe, and together they began their study of scientific management principles. Frank started a consulting business and Lillian worked at his side. They began their family and in 1910 moved to Rhode Island, where Gilbreth took her doctorate in psychology at Brown University in 1915--with four young children in tow at the ceremony.
But where Frank was concerned with the technical aspects of worker efficiency, Lillian was concerned with the human aspects of time management. Her ideas were not widely adopted during her lifetime, but they indicated the direction that modern management would take. She recognized that workers are motivated by indirect incentives (among which she included money) and direct incentives, such as job satisfaction. Her work with Frank helped create job standardization, incentive wage-plans, and job simplification. Finally, she was among the first to recognize the effects of fatigue and stress on time management.
Lillian Gilbreth continued her work alone after Frank's death in 1924. In 1926, she became the first woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. She went to Purdue in 1935 as a professor of management and the first female professor in the engineering school. In her consulting business, she worked with GE and other firms to improve the design of kitchens and household appliances. She even created new techniques to help disabled women accomplish common household tasks.
She did not retire from professional work until she was in her 80s. She traveled widely, speaking and writing about management issues. In 1966, she won the Hoover Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers. She died at the age of 92, the recipient of more than a dozen honorary degrees. Her ability to combine a career and family led to her being called, by the California Monthly in 1944, "a genius in the art of living."