The therblig is an obscure unit of measure that attempts to quantify human movement.

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were two scientists who collaborated on the development of motion study as an engineering and management technique. The Gilbreths would film people doing various jobs and would examine and attempt to quantify all of the motions they used. They would then breakdown the work into fundamental elements now called a therblig (derived from Gilbreth spelled backwards).

The eighteen therbligs are:

  • Search
  • Find
  • Select
  • Grasp
  • Hold
  • Transport (Hand Loaded)
  • Transport (Hand Empty)
  • Position
  • Assemble
  • Use
  • Disassemble
  • Inspect
  • Pre-Position
  • Release Load
  • Unavoidable Delay
  • Avoidable Delay
  • Plan
  • Rest

The entire therblig system was first introduced in Management and Administration (August, 1924 pp 151-154; September, 1924 pp 295-297) and has remained relatively unchanged.

The point of the system was to help employers identify any sort of unnecessary motions made by their workers and to help increase their efficiency. By breaking each action down to its component parts, each job could be reduced to a simple series of small motions that helped to maximize productivity and efficiency. The therblig system is the cornerstone of a workplace management style that became known as scientific management.

Of course, all that the system ended up doing was to reduce the workers into mindless automatons, the monotonous motions giving them repetitive stress injuries. Although the scientific management style has been largely debunked today, it still lives on in certain work environments, the most well known of these being McDonald’s. The company’s use of standards and repeatable actions in order to reduce independent thought and maximize profit is one of the hallmarks of McDonaldization.

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