What is a Time and Motion Study?

Gregory Hanson

A time and motion study is a standard business efficiency technique. It combines a time study, which monitors the amount of time required to complete each step of a workplace activity, with a motion study, which observes the steps taken by a worker to complete that activity. This technique was pioneered by Frederick Taylor and became a key component of theory of scientific management. The use of a time and motion study can greatly increase both the speed and quality of work, but this technique has historically been met with great resistance by employees.

Vladimir Lenin was a proponent of time and motion studies.
Vladimir Lenin was a proponent of time and motion studies.

When conducting a time and motion study, experts monitor each step of the work process, attempting to determine a reasonable average time to complete each part of a particular task. They also examine the work process itself in an attempt to identify places in which the current practice of a worker is inefficient, in either time or human motion, so that more efficient practices can be implemented, both to reduce strain on workers and to increase and standardize productivity.

Time and motion studies are used to determine efficiency in business.
Time and motion studies are used to determine efficiency in business.

Systematic attention to the process of work served to revolutionize the industrial economy of the early 20th century. With a time and motion study, expert managers were able to determine precisely how much time a worker required to perform their assigned set of tasks. This information was used to optimize industrial processes. It could also be used to push for increased worker productivity, as it could be used to set standardized work goals. Workers, who had previously had more slack in their schedules, often bitterly resented the close scrutiny and demands for a faster tempo of production, but Taylorism and related management systems prevailed.

Although associated with developing capitalist economies, this type of management technique was such a critical part of industrial development that one could have found a time and motion study in progress in any factory in the world in the 1920s. In fact, Vladimir Lenin was a great proponent of both Taylor’s management philosophy and time and motion studies particularly. The hero of Valentin Kataev’s film from 1932, Time, Forward!, spends much of the book engaged in such a study.

A time and motion study conducted in a modern workplace will attempt to improve efficiency and workflow but will also often focus on the health of the workforce. The business systems that distribute incoming calls to the employees of a modern call center and then monitor every aspect of their work are the distant offspring of time and motion studies. Improvements in ergonomic design in those same office spaces, which protect the health of workers, have also resulted from these studies.

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Discussion Comments


Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were instrumental in blazing the trail for time and motion study. They were some of the first efficiency experts. Their field of expertise was to reduce the number of motions required to perform a task efficiently. In fact, Gilbreth's studies on doctors performing surgery helped lead to the current method of surgical nurses handing surgeons the required instruments.

The Gilbreth family had some fame in their own time, but really became famous after two of the 12 children in the family, Frank Jr. and Ernestine, wrote the books "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "Belles on Their Toes." Both books were bestsellers and movies were also made of the books, both starring Myrna Loy as Lillian Gilbreth. Clifton Webb played Frank Gilbreth Sr. in "Cheaper."

No article about motion study is complete without a mention of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.

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