Friday, 14 May 2010

Lessons on Productivity from a humble bricklayer

Frank Gilbreth (1868-1924) began life as a humble bricklayer and rose to become the president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. (I guess in those days, they did not have an equivalent society for Industrial Engineers yet).

As an apprentice, he learnt his trade from a master bricklayer. Like Bruce Lee, he was not content to simply learn and apply. He observed and asked questions. He noticed that the traditional method of laying bricks had many unproductive movements. He also noticed that different bricklayers employed different methods.

Through careful study and applying an innovative spirit, he was able to eliminate many wasteful motions and simplify the method. This humble bricklayer taught the world a new discipline called Motion Study.

All the work that we do with our two hands can be broken down into basic movements called ‘motions’. For example, to pick up your pen to begin writing, you need to Reach, Grasp, Move, Position etc. Gilbreth named these motions, ‘Therbligs’, the reverse spelling of his name except for the last two letters. By careful examination of the work process, one can always improve the work method by Eliminating, Rearranging, Combining and Simplifying the motions. Subsequently, people like Ralph Barnes built on the work of Frank Gilbreth and came up with the Principles of Motion Economy. Such principles lay the foundation of Work Study and modern Industrial Engineering.

Like Bruce Lee, Frank Gilbreth exhibited the quality of a ‘kaizen mind’. He was:

a) Not satisfied with the status quo,
b) Always questioning existing methods of doing things,
c) Always looking for better ways of doing things,
d) Open to new ideas no matter where they came from,
e) Constantly coming up with new ideas and innovations.

Frank Gilbreth married a lady called Lillian; a psychologist. Together, the engineer-psychologist partnership gave the world many innovations. They had twelve children, six boys and six girls. When asked why he had so many children, Frank often replied, “Oh, they come cheaper by the dozen”. Two of their children wrote a book titled, Cheaper By The Dozen. They documented the ways his father applied the IE methods to manage their home. This book was made into a funny (black and white) movie which I saw many years ago.

An example of reduced motions

Nowadays, when we Singaporeans traveled in a bus, we would use an Ezlink card to tap on the card reader when we boarded the bus. It took only one simple ‘motion’. Compared to the previous stored value card of a few years ago, it was a significant improvement. You may say that the saving is only a couple of seconds; but applied to the line of passengers boarding a bus during peak hours, multiplied by the number of stations along the route and the thousands of trips each day, the time saving for the country as a whole is tremendous, don’t you think?