Movin’ and Groovin’

Moving and Grooving

Easter 33


They sound like the newest species of gremlins – therbligs.  Just hearing the name makes me expect to hear immediately after – “Coming to a movie screen near you this summer!”  And then the imagination starts to take off.  If gremlins were cute albeit frightening little fuzz balls with adorable faces, at least at first, what would a therblig look like?  The good news is that they are not as scary as the little fuzzy creatures in the 1984 film.  You also don’t have to wait until summer because you are already doing a therblig.  And you don’t have to excuse yourself or even close the door!


A therblig is any of a basic set of actions that can be evaluated when doing a manual task.  For instance, if I were writing this with a pencil or pen instead of typing on a keyboard, there would be a series of motions involved.  First, I would need to look for the writing implement or do a “search”.  The therblig symbol for this was a type of emoticon – a picture of an eye with the pupil looking to one corner.  Once I found my pen or pencil, the motion would then become “find” and the therblig indicated by an eye with the pupil looking straight ahead.  Then I would need to pick up or “grasp” the object, indicated by a therblig that resembles an upside-down letter “u” and hold said object as indicated by the upside-down “u” resting on a line.  Of course, to write, my pen or pencil would need to be properly placed, the therblig for that being the bottom half of a semi-circle with a line near the bottom third connecting the two sides, and then positioned, the therblig for which is a cursive number 9 at a slight slant.  Finally I would be ready to make a mark on my paper with my pen or pencil and that therblig is the right-side-up letter “u”, easy to remember because it so easily relates to the process “use”.


We seldom think about the steps involved in doing something until we can no longer do them.  Freedoms are a lot like that.  Currently discussions in the United States revolve around using public restrooms.  There are a great many steps involved in doing this but what is of greatest discussion currently is perhaps one of the least important in the entire process – the issue of gender assignment.  With all that is going on in the world, for some reason, this has taken front page news, although no evidence exists as to the validity of such concerns.   The importance of being able to eliminate body wastes is nothing to take lightly; I just think we do not need a therblig for this.


Therblig are the brain child of a husband and wife team and the name comes from their family name being reversed – Gilbreth.  (Yes, the last two characters were kept as they were in the actual name.)  Lillian Moller Gilbreth worked alongside her husband Frank Bunker Gilbreth for twenty years until his death in 1924 and carried on their work afterwards.


The process of evaluating motion was a major component in the Gilbreth study of organizational effectiveness and energy efficacy.  Two of their children explained in a book they wrote about their family entitled “Cheaper by the Dozen”:   “…Suppose a man goes into a bathroom and shave. We’ll assume that his face is all lathered and that he is ready to pick up his razor. He knows where the razor is, but first he must locate it with his eye. That is “search”, the first Therblig. His eye finds it and comes to rest — that’s “find”, the second Therblig. Third comes “select”, the process of sliding the razor prior to the fourth Therblig, “grasp.” Fifth is “transport loaded,” bringing the razor up to his face, and sixth is “position,” getting the razor set on his face. There are eleven other Therbligs — the last one is “think”!”


Frank Gilbreth himself described sixteen of what would become eighteen elements this way in a 1915 article.  “The elements of a cycle of decisions and motions, either running partly or wholly concurrently with other elements in the same or other cycles, consist of the following, arranged in varying sequences: 1. Search, 2. Find, 3. Select, 4. Grasp, 5. Position, 6. Assemble, 7. Use, 8. Dissemble, or take apart, 9. Inspect, 10. Transport, loaded,  11. Pre-position for next operation, 12. Release load, 13. Transport, empty,  14. Wait (unavoidable delay),  15. Wait (avoidable delay),  16. Rest (for overcoming fatigue).”


Lillian Moller was a quiet child and homeschooled until the age of nine.  She thought herself plain and devoted her time to her studies before meeting and marrying Frank Gilbreth in 1904.  The two were equal partners in everything although Lillian’s name was always omitted from published works because of her gender.  The couple had twelve children and Lillian was not only a working mother but became a single working mother after her husband’s death.  Her struggles to continue their work are hilariously documented in two books written by two of her children, “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Bells on Their Toes”.  Movies have been made from both books.


Lillian Moller Gilbreth was the first female engineer to earn a doctorate degree and still ranks as one of the best engineers in time management in the world today.  More importantly, however, she and her husband saw workers not as simply a means to an end but as human beings.  Their time management studies were not only about producing the best product the fastest way but doing so in a manner that benefitted and helped the worker as well.


The Gilbreth method was not limited to the workplace.  By reading the books one can see how their home was also a laboratory for such innovative ideas as timing one’s shower and even group tonsillectomies which would prove time-saving for the surgeon.


In 1935, Lillian Moller Gilbreth became the first female to teach engineering at Purdue University.  Although her name was often omitted from their published studies, she was the better educated of the two, earning a degrees in both engineering and educational psychology since industrial engineering had no degree program at the time.


It would be difficult to find something we do in our daily living that has not been affected by the therblig method of study on some level.  The type of razors on the market, the ergonomics of automobiles, even the height of kitchen cabinets are all examples and resulting effects of motion studies.  They also all consider the user as a human being and not just a means to an end.


The Gilbreth team and Lillian Moller Gilbreth in particular also had a keen sense of humor and lived with intention.  In her book “making Time” Dee Ann Finken wrote of Lillian Gilbreth: “the Gilbreths practiced the earliest form of the discipline, emphasizing the design and improvement of systems related to people, equipment, energy, and other factors.  When husband Frank died at the relatively young age of 55, Lillian took up the reins alone and continued the work they as a couple had pursued. In the process, she became much more than the mother of 12 children and costar of a film.”


Living with intention, living efficiently, and living with humor is the legacy of Lillian Moller Gilbreth.  She has always been one of my life heroes – a woman who saw the process but never forgot the humanity for which the process existed.  Too often we get too busy to remember that basic fact.  Everything we do should have a purpose and be done efficiently but it must be done remembering that we are all a part of a greater process called life and that we are all in this life together – none better, all equal in the effort.




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