Productivity Pioneers

The productivity science movement has benefited from the work of a number of original scientific thinkers and practising engineers. These pages pay brief tribute to the early pioneers who made the whole productivity movement possible and who set the foundation for the development of productivity science.


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth

Together The Gilbreths formed one of the great husband-and-wife teams of science and engineering. In the early 1900s, they started work on the development of motion study as a performance improvement technique. Frank, who started his working life as a bricklayer, had noticed that no two bricklayers seemed to use the same method – each developed his own individual technique. This led him to question the concept of ‘the one best way’ and to work on ways of improving how work was carried out. He developed a number of improvements for bricklaying – making sure , for example, that lower graded workers were used to stack bricks in precisely the best way for a skilled bricklayer to pick them up with out looking or thinking.

Frank and Lillian analysed work in a number of fields and pioneered the use of moving pictures as the basis of recording and analysis. The developed the concept of fundamental elements of work – which they termed Therbligs (from the reverse of their name) – as a way of analysing work at a high level of detail (micromotion study).

After Frank’s death, Lillian continued the work and extend its ‘reach’ into the home, looking for the ‘one best way’ to perform basic household tasks (a process started by Frank). As a mother of twelve, this was quite important. The Gilbreth household ran by means of the Family Council established by Lillian. This oversaw a purchasing committee and a utility committee which fined wasters of water and electricity.

Lillian was one of the first ‘superwomen’ to combine homemaking with a strong career. In 1926 she became the first woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and in 1935 became professor of management at Purdue.

Together, they formed a strong team – Frank was more concerned with technical matters relating to worker efficiency; Lillian concentrated on the human issues. She was ahead of the time but much of what she articulated has since been adopted into mode management.

See The Gilbreth Network


George Elton Mayo

Elton Mayo was born in Adelaide, South Australia on 26 December 1880 and died in Guildford, Surrey on 1 September 1949. He was the second child of a respected colonial family. Elton was expected to follow his grandfather into medicine, but failed at university studies and was sent to Britain. Here he turned to writing, wrote on Australian politics for the Pall Mall Gazette and started teaching. He then returned to Australia to work in an Adelaide publishing business where his views on management caused him to be unpopular. He went back to study, and became the most brilliant student of the philosopher Sir William Mitchell.

During a successful academic career in Australia he went on secondment to Britain but got ‘stuck’ in the USA on a series of speaking engagements and working on a number of projects. When the University refused to renew the secondment he ended up without a source of funds. He got an offer of financial support for six months from the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, and was given a temporary post at the University of Pennsylvania in 1923.

He researched the effect of rest breaks on worker productivity in various textile firms. In one study he introduced regular pauses from the back-breaking work of a cotton-spinning mill and observed improvements in worker productivity. The rest breaks were opposed by the foremen who, when Mayo was absent from the plant, returned workers to past practices. The effect of their intervention was a dramatic fall in productivity, thus illustrating the effectiveness of Mayo’s rest pauses.

Mayo went on to his most famous experiments – those at the Hawthorne Works of the General Electric Company in Chicago between 1924 and 1927. He undertook further experimentation to find out what effect fatigue and monotony had on job productivity and how to control them through varying rest breaks, work hours, temperature and humidity.

Mayo realised that the women, exercising a freedom they didn’t have on the factory floor, had formed a social group that also included the observer who tracked their productivity. The talked and they joked. They began to meet socially outside of work. Mayo had discovered a fundamental concept that seems obvious today. Workplaces are social environments and within them, people are motivated by much more than economic self-interest. Mayo realised that the very fact that people were taking an interest in the workers was affecting their behaviour and their productivity – and, even when the changes made were, at face value, negative (such as shortening rest breaks or lowering lighting levels) productivity rose. His findings didn’t mesh with the then current theory (see F.W. Taylor) of the worker as motivated solely by self-interest but Mayo had stumbled upon a principle of human motivation that revolutionised the theory and practice of management.

He concluded that :

  • Work is a group activity
  • The need for recognition, security and sense of belonging is more important in determining workers’ morale and productivity than the physical conditions under which he works.
  • Informal groups within the work plant exercise strong social controls over the work habits and attitudes of the individual worker.


Charles E. Sorensen

Charles E. Sorensen went with his parents to the USA from Denmark when he was four years old.

His first job was at the Buffalo Stove factory, where he trained as a pattern maker and foundry man. His interest in casting was to remain with him all of his life. A firm of custom foundry-men later employed Sorensen in Detroit, where he first met Henry Ford.

The role of the Ford motor company in promoting mass production and assembly line working is well known. However, Ford’s achievements were built on the pioneering work of Sorensen who first had the revolutionary idea of moving the product (in the form of the chassis) through the various workstations. The product was taken to the workers and their tools and equipment rather than the other way round.

Sorensen, along with another Ford manager – Charles Lewis – came in one Sunday and tested his idea for the first time. This was in 1910. Sorensen’s account of his revolutionary development, in his own words:

As may be imagined, the job of putting the car together was a simpler one than handling the materials that had to be brought to it. We gradually worked it out by bringing up what we termed the fast-moving materials. The main bulky parts, like engines and axles, needed a lot of room. To give them that space, we left the smaller, more compact, light handling material in a storage building. Then we arranged with the stock department to bring up at regular hours such divisions of material as we had marked out and packaged. This simplification of handling cleaned things up materially.

But at best, I did not like it. It was then that the idea occurred to me that assembly would be easier, simpler and faster if we moved the chassis along, beginning at one end of the plant with a frame and adding the axles and the wheels; then moving it past the stockroom, instead of moving the stockroom to the chassis. (Ohno, 1988).

Later when the Model T Ford was nearing the end of its commercial life, Henry Ford decided that he wanted to build a V-8-powered car to take its place. Because the company was in a tricky economic position, however, he was forced to first create another four cylinder car, the Model A.

Ford maintained his idea of a V-8, though, and, later – as the Model A also neared its commercial end (1931), Ford engineers embarked on a major development exercise to develop a commercially-viable V-8 engine. At that time, only a few very expensive marques offered eight-cylinder engines, and few of them used Ford’s preferred “V” configuration. Most were based on the much simpler ‘straight-8’ but this was not suitable for a low-priced, short-wheelbase Ford.

The Ford engineering team – Ray Laird, Emil Zoerlein and Carl Schultz – designed a 221 cubic inch powerplant that delivered 65 horsepower at 3400 rpm. Constructed of cast iron with side-operated valves, the engine bas not very sophisticated – but it could be manufactured much more cheaply than the V-8 engines of, say, a Cadillac. It also still offered the smoothness and performance of a ‘real V-8.

The engine still had to go into production. As designed, the 90-degree block at the heart of the engine offered a remarkable degree of sophistication but could still be cast as a single unit. It was Charles Sorensen who worked long and hard on the manufacturing processes necessary to build the new engine. His success led him to being nicknamed “Cast-Iron Charlie”.

During World War 2, Charles Sorensen, then Ford’s Director of Production, conceived the idea of manufacturing the giant B24 Liberator bomber at the unbelievable rate of one an hour. (Previously it was built at the rate of one per day.) The men and women of the Willow Run plant where the bomber was manufactured, challenged by the opportunity and inspired by Sorensens’s vision, actually realised this conception.

Sorensen was Knighted by King Christian of his native Denmark and made a member of the Order of Dannenbrog for his accomplishments in the USA.


Ohno, Taiichi (1988). Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. Portland, Oregon: Productivity Press.


Frederick Winslow Taylor

Taylor was born in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia), Pennsylvania. In 1878, he began working at the Midvale Steel Company. As he rose to become foreman of the steel plant, he started to apply himself to thoughts about efficiency and productivity.

These thoughts led to the development of what became known as “scientific management”.

In the introduction to his book “The Principles of Scientific Management“, Taylor suggests that :

In the past man has been first; in the futurethe system must be first.

(The text of his book is available on the web at

His ‘scientific principles’ were those of systematic study, analysis and the assumption of causal relationships that could be derived and subsequently managed. e.g. the relationship between incentives and effort. He assumed that working systems were generally inefficient – largely because no-one had bothered to make them efficient – and that workers were naturally inclined to be lazy and inefficient – since this was in their own best interest. Therefore managers had to overcome this natural reluctance to put in maximum effort and offer incentives so that worker effort was in the interests of both the company and the worker.

He felt that most managers were ill-equipped to fulfill their role, since they were not trained to analyse and improve work, and seemed incapable of motivating workers. Taylor thought that managers should be able to analyse work (method study) to discover the most efficient way of carrying it out, and then should select and train workers to develop their skills in supporting this method. He felt that financial incentives would motivate workers – but that higher productivity would still result in lower wage costs. In fact, he was a strong advocate of co-operation between workers and managers to mutual advantage. However, even in this there was a tendency to consider workers as industrial resources – as ‘machines’ rather than as sentient beings.

Taylor believed strongly in the concept of measurement. By measuring work, and constantly refining and re-measuring working methods, one could work towards an optimal method.

Taylor promoted the concept of ‘support departments’ that would take some specialisms away from face-to-face managers, though later in life he accepted that the conflict and tension between the generalists and the specialists could be counter-productive.

When judging Taylor with hindsight we must take the time to consider when his work was carried out – the industrial revolution was in full swing, and many ‘factory-based processes’ were relatively new. Taylor was one of the first to realise that systematic scrutiny of such processes could yield productivity increases. As “the father of scientific management” he made a major contribution to the development of productivity science.

see also:

The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency
Robert Kanigel
Viking Press
ISBN: 0670864021 (May 1997)