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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sippican's Greatest Hits: Is Frank Bunker Gilbreth The Greatest Man Maine Ever Produced?

[Editor's Note: From 2012. And there is no editor]



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 get elected solely on assembling a coalition of voters with a profound contempt of just less than half 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.

7 comments:

Matt said...

You discovered the surrogate article of self-employment, also known as entrepreneurship if you're well-heeled. You figured that out yourself; I reckon others will too before long. I sense the freedom from soul-crushing PC bullshit and ass-kissery will always have an allure to some, despite inevitable perdition. In short, it's a Yankee thing, and perhaps a Catholic thing. ;)

chasmatic said...

I consider myself goal-oriented rather than task-oriented. The two paradigms are mostly either/or but a smooth blend has usually got the job done for me. If management=goal and labor=task they must exist in a symbiotic balance or both will die.

That's why so many individuals with souls and brains are self-employed. Best of both.

BTW Sipp, you set some fine examples as an individual and as the head of your clan. The only shortcoming I've noticed is an absence of Polka music in your musical offerings. Sigh, a neglected art form. Yes, art. Perhaps if I donate an accordion the kiddos can whup up something in two-four.

Sam L. said...

WWII bomber gunners had to do that in the dark with gloves on, it being really cold at 20K feet and above.

And...Anyone can take a good idea and find a way to make it really rotten.

Anonymous said...

Well, it's one of the nicest things going in today's bizarro world, to have a new thought come along. Thanks !
I knew perhaps more than average about both Taylor and Gilbreth; never liked Taylor and Taylorism, thought Gilbreth had a lot of good ideas, and was quite a mensch besides, but I'd never actually made the connection to the present day as you have. One more crappy bit of Progressivism fouling us up.
What a surprise. The inverse-Midas-touch never fails, does it ?
Thanks again.

RobertM said...

Is Gilbreth the greatest man Maine ever produced?

Not to my mind. The greatest Mainer is Joshua Chamberlain. Hands down.

Lonetown said...

We try to accomplish the same with Lean Manufacturing today.

In the long run efficiency=quality.

Armed Texan said...

Hmmm, I wonder why Aldous Huxley hung this all on Ford rather than Taylor in Brave New World.