Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Sr.

On July 7, 1868, Frank Bunker Gilbreth was born. He received an education through high school and at the age of 17, became a bricklayer. He later rose to become a building contractor, inventor, a management engineer, and a lecturer at Purdue University. On October 19, 1904 Frank married Lillian Evelyn Moller and they had 12 children; Anne, Mary, Ernestine, Martha, Frank Jr., William, Lillian, Frederick, Daniel, John, Robert and Jane. They lived in Montclair NJ, where Frank died of heart failure on June 14, 1924 at the age of 55.

I first learned about Frank Gilbreth as a teen, when I read the book "Cheaper by the Dozen". It is the autobiography of the Gilbreth family, as told by two of their children. If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend that you do so. The story is interesting, funny, and heartwarming. In fact, there are two sequels, "Belles on Their Toes" and "Time Out for Happiness" which are also very good. If you have seen the movie "Cheaper by the Dozen" with Steve Martin, I have to tell you it's a completely different story - they just stole the name. I highly recommend you don't see that movie. The movies you want are "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Belles on Their Toes".

But that's not really what I wanted to talk to you about. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth pioneered the field of motion study engineering. It began in Frank's early days as a brick layer. In trying to learn his new job, Frank studied the other bricklayers. He got in trouble with the foreman for studying too much and not working enough. From the book:
During Dad's first week at work he made so many suggestions about how brick could be laid faster and better that the foreman threatened repeatedly to fire him.
"You're the one who came here to learn," the foreman hollered at him. "For Christ's sake don't try to learn us."
Subtle innuendos like that never worried Dad. Besides, he already knew that motion study was his element, and he had discovered something that apparently had never attracted the attention of industry before. He tried to explain it to the foreman.
"Did you ever notice that no two men use exactly the same way of laying bricks?" he asked. "That's important, and do you know why?"
"I know that if you open your mount about bricklaying again, I'll lay a brick in it."
"It's important because if one bricklayer is doing the job the right way, then all the others are doing the job the wrong way. Now, if I had your job, I'd find who's laying brick the right way, and make all the others copy him."
"If you had my job," shouted the livid-faced foreman, "the first thing you'd do is fire the red-headed unprintable son of a ruptured deleted who tried to get your job. and that's what I think you're trying to do."
He picked up a brick and waved it menacingly.
Gilbreth's studying paid off. He learned what made the fastest brick layer the fastest. But he didn't stop there. He studied the motions that bricklayers made, and found a way to reduce the number of movements to lay one brick from 18 down to six. At a time when an expert bricklayer was laying 125 bricks an hour, Gilbreth was able to lay 350 using his methods.

This was just the beginning. He and Lillian became engineering consultants. They developed a set of standard motions, called "therbligs" (Gilbreth backwards, with the "th" transposed). The rest of their professional lives were devoted to finding what they termed the "One Best Way" in various industries. It was Gilbreth's idea that a surgical nurse serve as "caddy" (Gilbreth's term) to a surgeon; providing surgical instruments as called for. He devised the techniques used by armies around the world to teach recruits how to rapidly disassemble and reassemble their weapons even when blindfolded or in total darkness. Above all, Frank and Lilian were scientists, who taught that our methods of doing things should be constantly examined, and improvements adopted.Gilbreth even discovered the best way to button his shirts (from the bottom up was faster than the conventional top down) and to teach his children (by painting information on the walls of their bedrooms and bathroom).

Of course, having a "One Best Way" flies in the face of "freedom." Why shouldn't I be able to decide what bricklaying method works best for me? The answer, of course, is you can decide what method to use, but if your desire is to lay brick well, you are better off using the method that is objectively the best rather than making something up yourself.

I know this was a long intro, but these are my thoughts, so I can ramble as much as I like. Anyway, I see this whole thing as a metaphor for religion. Everybody claims they want to find peace and joy in their life, and to wind up in heaven. Yet many people have no plan on how to do that. They approach it by trying to make something up that "works for them." At best they will do what their friends do, or try to emulate some popular figure (who usually turns out to be a miserable stinker in the end). Why should they think that making something up at random will work? Why should they follow the advice of someone who has no better knowledge than they do?

Science would suggest that we emulate Frank Gilbreth and take a look around us. Who's doing it better? And what logic and analysis have they applied to the problem that indicates they know what they're doing?

Scripture, natural law and logic all indicate that the Catholic Church is that "One Best Way" to get to heaven. Nobody else has the history all the way back through Abraham. Nobody else has the direct authority of Christ. Nobody else has the apostolic succession, the priesthood, the saints, the miracles, the Truth. Even disregarding biblical authority, its adherence to natural law and common sense indicates its sense. It is that "One Best Way."

Some people criticize the Church for not "keeping up with the times", but if there is a "One Best Way" it is what it is - it doesn't change with the times. For example, good nutrition is good nutrition. It doesn't change with the diet fad of the month. Every once in a while nutrition recommendations are refined a bit, but we're not going to suddenly find out we don't actually need protein. The Church is like that.

You are, of course, free to make up your own way. There is no employer forcing you to do things "the company way" as with Gilbreth. As Pope Benedict XVI says "We impose nothing, yet we propose ceaselessly." I do hope you'll do the research and find your way home to the Catholic Church. And if you do follow a different way I hope your way eventually leads you to heaven and I meet you there. For me, I'll stick with the One Best Way.


I have just finished watching the 1950 version of this movie and I have to say that I have been very, very impressed. Having heard about it previously (the reaction of the family planning woman), I DID watch the Steve Martin version and was extremely disappointed.

I thought it was funny, the comment that on their wedding day they talked about "having an even dozen".

On my wedding day, I blithely quipped in answer to the question as to how many kids we planned to have: "Well, I want six. Three boys for me and three girls for their father, and he wants eleven because New Zealand needs a decent cricket team."

I forgot the twelfth man!

God was listening and out of eleven conceptions ( that I am aware of) we have three sons and three daughters. The rest await us in Heaven, with I strongly suspect, a twelfth man.

I suspect we would also send family planning women running...

Thank you for the kind comments. Although I'm sorry you didn't get to meet five of your kids you both got your wish (sort of). And it is important for family planning women to get their exercise. ;-)

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