Book Review: Time Out For Happiness

This is a different book for me to review, but as my wife once said to me, “Only you could see the economic angles of ‘Little House on the Prairie.'”  Guilty as charged.

Many people have read “Cheaper by the Dozen,” and “Belles on Their Toes.”  Indeed, I read them as a child, and to my children as an adult.  That era in America had huge families as families moved from the country to the cities, and primitive methods of birth control were temporarily forgotten, often amid economic success.  Many people wanted large families if they could afford them.  Affording them was the problem.  My grandparents were kids in large families.  Seemed to be the rule back then.

What makes “Time Out For Happiness” special is that it traces the lives of Frank & Lillian Gilbreth, the parents, and explains why they were so special, not as parents, but as intellectuals that changed our world.

Frank Gilbreth was an ambitious young man who was always looking for a better way to do things.  In learning bricklaying, as an amateur, he analyzed what experts did, looking for the best way to do it.  The experts were annoyed at the neophyte who wouldn’t simply imitate, but had to think it through.  The neophyte was markedly worse initially, but then discovered an idea: if you set up the work to minimize unnecessary motion, a worker can work faster, and with less effort.  Frank devised a way of putting all that a bricklayer would need within easy reach, and he became the fastest bricklayer around.  He then made money selling his system, but then he went on to do the same for many building tasks, raising productivity dramatically, without demanding that workers work harder.

This contrasts with the ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose disciples measured employees with stopwatches, and urged that all work faster.  Gilbreth assumed that most workers wanted to do a good job; how could he make doing a good job easier.

Politically, Gilbreth was a centrist; he wanted the growth in productivity to be shared by all; he worked mostly with those that would deliver part of the increase in profits back to workers. As such, Gilbreth’s ideas were often supported by unions, and Gilbreth himself supported unions, so long as they limited themselves to the welfare of workers, and did not create onerous work rules that unnecessarily harmed productivity.

Phrasing it differently, the Gilbreths wanted the increase in productivity to result in greater happiness for all.  After all, if we are saving time by being more productive, what will we do with all the extra time or goods produced?  We should use them to be happy, owners and workers alike.

One key thing that Frank Gilbreth did was do time & motion studies.  With film being a new thing, and expensive, he measured the way people moved at work an analyzed it closely.  He did this with the interests of owners and workers at heart.  This enabled them to come up with process improvements that other experts could not.

As his ideas gain more respect, and as his corporate profits grew, he and Lillian wrestled with the question, “Run a company, or teach ideas?”  They both concluded that being consultants for improving productivity was the most desirable goal, though it took some struggle to give up the immediate profitability of the construction business.  The early days weren’t easy, and its took a while before they got any business, because the disciples of Taylor did not respect him.

When WWI arose, Frank volunteered to help make the military more efficient, and as a Major did so for four months before he became very sick, and Lillian dropped everything in order to save him.  She succeeded, and Frank lived for six more years, building the business, and benefiting their home.  He died while talking to her on a pay phone, traveling to give a talk.

This left her in a financial lurch.  She survived by getting advances on Frank’s inheritance, and building the business Frank left behind, including starting a school for efficiency.  There was no inheritance from here side, because they concluded she needed none, being married to the prosperous Frank.

But as she continued to speak, write and teach, she gained enough  to support the family and send her kids through college.  She received many awards where she was the first woman to receive them.  Lillian was different from Frank because though she knew most of what he knew, and vice-versa, her strength was the employer/employee relationship.  How do you create good relationships that create productivity, and good companies?

Both Frank and Lillian were driven; they worked hard, and focused on the public good.  Frank died working.  Lillian worked into her mid-80s, with her children protesting her demanding schedule.  She gave her last talk at age 90, to honor the work of Frank at his Centennial.  She lived four years beyond that.

She had many famous friends, including many US Presidents, on whose committees she served, from Hoover to LBJ.  Much of it dealt with disability, which both she and Frank had worked on, because they had an interest in helping those who had it bad.  Frank devised ways to aid the disabled to dress, and more.  Lillian improved on that.

Do you want to get to know two quirky humanitarian people who changed our society?  They created the coffee break (rest helps productivity) and anticipated many later improvements in the workplace.

Don’t Buy This Book

This book is too scarce.  Don’t buy it.  Use interlibrary loan to borrow it.  But it is a very good book, and I haven’t told you the half of it.