Lillian Moller Gilbreth


Lillian Moller Gilbreth : biography

May 24, 1878 – January 2, 1972

In 1965, she became the first woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering. The next year, she received the Hoover Medal, an engineering prize awarded jointly by five engineering societies, for her "contributions to motion study and to recognition of the principle that management engineering and human relations are intertwined…. Additionally, her unselfish application of energy and creative efforts in modifying industrial and home environments for the handicapped has resulted in full employment of their capabilities and elevation of their self-esteem".


Lillian Gilbreth combined the perspectives of an engineer, a psychologist, a wife, and a mother; she helped industrial engineers see the importance of the psychological dimensions of work. She became the first American engineer ever to create a synthesis of psychology and scientific management.

Psychology in scientific management

She and her husband were certain that the revolutionary ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, as Taylor formulated them, would be neither easy to implement nor sufficient; their implementation would require hard work by both engineers and psychologists to make them successful. Both Lillian and Frank Gilbreth believed that scientific management as formulated by Taylor fell short when it came to managing the human element on the shop floor.Graham 1998, pp. 49, 54. The Gilbreths helped formulate a constructive critique of Taylorism; this critique had the support of other successful managers. Republished by Hive Publishing Co (Hive management history series, no. 46) (ISBN 978-0879600471).

Her work included the marketing research for Johnson & Johnson in 1926 and her efforts to improve women’s spending decisions during the first years of the Great Depression. She also helped companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Macys with their management departments. In 1926, when Johnson & Johnson hired Lillian as a consultant to do marketing research on sanitary napkins., the firm benefited in three ways. First, it could use her training as a psychologist in measuring and the analysis of attitudes and opinions. Second, it could give her the experience of an engineer who specializes in the interaction between bodies and material objects. Third, she would be a public image as a mother and a modern career woman to build consumer trust.Graham 1998, p. 218.

Time, motion and fatigue study

She and her husband were partners in the management consulting firm of Gilbreth, Inc., which performed time and motion study. Additionally, the Gilbreths did research on fatigue study, the forerunner to ergonomics.

Domestic management and home economics

The Gilbreth children often took part in the experiments. Gilbreth was instrumental in the development of the modern kitchen, creating the "work triangle" and linear kitchen layouts that are often used today. In addition to having twelve children, writing books, helping companies with their management skills, and managing women consumers, Lillian was instrumental in the design of a desk in 1933 (in cooperation with IBM) for display at the Chicago World’s Fair.Graham 1998, p. 188, citing "Planned Motion in the Home," The Gilbreth Management Desk pamphlet, c. O f. NE, N-File, Gilbreth Collection at Purdue University.

Volunteer work and government service

Her government work began as a result of her longtime friendship with Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou Henry Hoover, both of whom she had known in California; Gilbreth had presided over the Women’s Branch of the Engineers’ Hoover for President campaign.Lancaster 2004, p. 273. At the behest of Lou Henry Hoover, Gilbreth joined the Girl Scouts as a consultant in 1929, later becoming a member of the board of directors, and remained active in the organization for more than twenty years.Lancaster 2004, p. 281.

Under the Hoover administration, she worked on and headed the women’s section of the President’s Emergency Committee for Employment in 1930, where she worked to gain the cooperation of women’s groups for reducing unemployment.Lancaster 2004, p. 286. During World War II, she was an advisor to several governmental groups, providing expertise on education and labor (particularly women in the workforce) for organizations such as for the War Manpower Commission, the Office of War Information,Wood 2003, p. 128. and the United States Navy.Lancaster 2004, p. 315. In later years, she served on the Chemical Warfare BoardLancaster 2004, p. 309. and on Harry Truman’s Civil Defense Advisory Council. During the Korean War, she served on the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.