Counting therbligs

My pencil would be dull. Dull from practicing the possibility of perfect circles. The lead would make the newsprint shiny as I traced the line over and again. Stillness at the kitchen table gave way to the lone movement of cursive practice into a dark afternoon. Worse than eating peas, and certainly more deafening than piano practice, was the friction of a pencil point on newsprint.

My circles were never efficient, never perfect. Sharpen. Point to paper. Swish. Swish. But the lines were outside the prescribed oval each time. I was a cursive failure.

Invisible paths

The problem really is the number eleven. That is the surprising number of hand motions it took to type this sentence. From the initial “think” (which words should I write?) to “use” (which keys get depressed?), what appears to be a fluid operation — writing of any kind — is, in fact, a range of both efficient and inefficient activities that can be observed and measured. Cursive is hard. Hand motions, as one example of physical gestures, do not typically leave a visible path behind them so our processes can be obtuse and go unnoticed.

From where you currently read, look around. How many systems are
 supporting and intersecting the place you are? How many are visible, and interestingly, invisible?

What grammar do we have for them? How many ways to measure them? And as for the invisible ones, how many
 ways to view them? The physicality of the motion of these
systems, and in turn their physical inefficiency, is impressively 
inaccessible. Meanwhile, we’ve grown accustomed to
 inaccessible process taking place all around us.

Visible therbligs

Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, an engineer team with expertise in motion
 study, as early as 1918 sought to make the invisible visible.

Through intense observation and noticing, Frank coined the “therblig” 
(say his last name out loud backwards), which suggested
 there were only 18 fundamental hand movements, rendering the therblig
 the unit for measuring process.

Although therbligs gave process units of measure a name, they didn’t make process visible like another of the
 Gilbreth projects: light painting. About the time of the second Industrial Revolution, the Gilbreths’
goal was to optimize manual labor by reducing or eliminating 
inefficient movements. Continuing their focus on work 
simplification, the pair used small lights and camera shutters to
 study the engineering and management techniques of work.

The result
 was a visible trail of movements that helped them isolate 
inefficiencies. Whether with work process, RFID, or WiFi, visibility hails insights unseen and unavailable before.

Perhaps there is hope for my cursive yet.