Lillian Gilbreth, Organizational Psychology, and Industrial Management

The study of organizational psychology and industrial engineering is all about optimization.

It’s about improving industrial efficiency by removing unnecessary complexity, simplifying tasks, and improving conditions for workers.

Lillian Gilbreth (1878‐1972) was from Oakland CA, and she grew up a shy girl who excelled academically and went to college to obtain a masters and a doctorate in psychology.

She is considered to be the first industrial organizational psychologist, pioneering many industrial management techniques.

In Ms. Gilbreth’s time, this was something new. Saliently, she developed new ways of applying her background in psychology to organizational efficiency. Industrial and
organizational psychology is the study of human behavior relating to the workplace. It applies psychological theories and principles to organizations and workers in their place of work. It also applies to our work-life more generally.

This is a game about eliminating complexity. Because it means looking at repetitive work and simplifying processes. It’s the pursuit of making the product better, working conditions better, and reducing operating costs. This is the paradigm of looking at factories as systems and making them function efficiently.

Why Organizational Psychology is Important

Organizational psychology is interesting to learn and should be a critical part of every engineer’s thought process in our design work. You can improve user experience by using these principles. Every factory and every system can be designed better by using insights from Ms Gilbreth’s industrial management work.

As engineers, our job is to learn how to design and build the most optimized systems. Every day, in multiple little ways, we have a chance to fix things or at least identify things that could be done better. The best engineers love to spot things that could be done better and do something about it.

Follow through, even knowing that you won’t always get support. The middle of commissioning and qualification is the wrong time for second guessing design: ask ANY experienced engineer.

The science is in; this isn’t a new idea. It was true last century and it will be true next century. Focus on eliminating complexity, focus on making it easier for operations and other manufacturing support staff to get their jobs done.

Our part to play as engineers is a very important one in this great infinite game of improvement.

Creativity and Leonardo DaVinci

What often differentiates smart people who have a major impact from those who don’t is their ability to cultivate their creativity.

Love every topic… Look for patterns in one area that you can model to solve a problem in another area.

A great way to bring more creativity to your engineering work is to expose yourself to great artists and their work.

For Steve Jobs, every time he ended a product presentation he would show an intersection of two street signs: arts and engineering.

Today, a lot of people believe everybody should specialize. We believe children should focus on a STEM education. Are we forgetting that the arts and the humanities are what make us creative?

Leonardo Da Vinci is possibly the most creative genius in history. He is the ultimate embodiment of somebody who combined the arts and the sciences.

He lacked a traditional education in science or engineering. But his painstaking efforts to model the human body and the flow of water in rivers and streams was unlike anything seen before. He tried to understand the world around him at new levels of detail. Leonardo correctly believed that being a better scientist and understanding anatomy made him a better artist. He was capable of creating amazingly detailed recreations of the human form and the nature around him in his art. He advanced every discipline he worked in from anatomy, science, painting, and engineering.

The genius was in creatively applying his multidisciplinary knowledge to make a bigger impact on each discipline.

It works both ways. If you want to be a more creative engineer, learn about art.

Leonardo thought everything and everyone in this world was connected. Art and technology are dependent. Engineering is founded in creativity. Great engineering is art.

Being Unreasonable

The playwright George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

If this was simply true, success would just mean imposing your will on other people. That’s not progress.

Creatives, innovators, and revolutionaries sometimes share the trait of being disagreeable. This isn’t the only way to do things.

If you have a vision to improve something, overpowering those around you into your version of progress is not your only option. In this day and age real progress comes when we collaborate in great groups and the best ideas are aggregated to the top of the pile. Regardless of who originated them.

Engineers improve and grow when they are working in a safe environment. Where it’s safe to share an idea. Safe to sound stupid. Safe to sound risky. Safe to push boundaries.

HOWEVER… We shouldn’t all agree. Ideas are improved by bumping them off reality and having others poke holes in your theory.

Find a great group that helps you grow as an engineer. Find a group that is filled with great people who make you feel like they enjoy listening to your ideas. Maybe educating you as to why something won’t work. Maybe it’s why they think your idea won’t work. Make sure their reasoning is valid. Push back if you disagree.

Use your intuition to sniff out dogmas of doing things “just because”.

Look for qualified advice. That means seeking out people who know the topic.

A lot of times you need to think bigger to solve a problem. Look for opportunities to go up one meta level. Be disagreeable, agreeable, whatever suits your personal style.  Always be respectful. Enjoy the process!