Lillian Gilbreth’s Synthesist:

Lillian Gilbreth is one of my heroes in Industrial Engineering. I have written about her here and here. In today’s post, I am looking at Gilbreth’s idea of an analyst and synthesist. The term “analyst” is in common vocabulary, whereas the term “synthesist” is not. Even Microsoft Word is identifying that the term “synthesist” is incorrect.

In any introduction class to systems thinking, we get introduced to the idea of analysis and synthesis. As Russell Ackoff, the giant in Systems Thinking, teaches us:

A system is a whole which consists of a set of two or more parts. Each part affects the behavior of the whole, depending on how it interacts with the other parts of the system. To understand a system, analysis says to take it apart. But when you take a system apart, it loses all of its essential properties. The discovery that you cannot understand the nature of a system by analysis forced us to realize that another type of thinking was required. Not surprisingly, it came to be called synthesis.

Analysis… reveals structure— how a system works. If you want to repair an automobile, you have to analyze it to find what part isn’t working. Synthesis reveals understanding—why it works the way it does. The automobile, for example, was originally developed for six passengers. But no amount of analysis will help you to find out why. The answer lies in the fact that cars were designed for the average American family, which happened to be 5.6 at the time.

Lillian Gilbreth also talked about analysis and synthesis, back in 1914, in her book, The Psychology of Management. Gilbreth discussed ideas from the British psychologist, James Sully.

Analysis is defined by Sully as follows: “Analysis” is “taking apart more complex processes in order to single out for special inspection their several constituent processes.” He divides elements of thought activity into two:

(a) analysis: abstraction, (b) synthesis: comparison.”

Gilbreth further clarified what an analyst does:

ANALYST’S WORK IS DIVISION. – It is the duty of the analyst to divide the work that he is set to study into the minutest divisions possible.

She went on to describe the qualifications of an analyst.

QUALIFICATIONS OF AN ANALYST. – To be most successful, an analyst should have ingenuity, patience, and that love of dividing a process into its component parts and studying each separate part that characterizes the analytic mind. The analyst must be capable of doing accurate work, and orderly work.

To get the most pleasure and profit from his work he should realize that his great, underlying purpose is to relieve the worker of unnecessary fatigue, to shorten his work period per day, and to increase the number of his days and years of higher earning power. With this realization will come an added interest in his subject.

Gilbreth defined the role of a synthesist as follows:

THE SYNTHESIST’S WORK IS SELECTION AND ADDITION. – The synthesist studies the individual results of the analyst’s work, and their inter-relation, and determines which of these should be combined, and in what manner, for the most economic result. His duty is to construct that combination of the elements which will be most efficient.

The qualifications of a synthesist was explained as:

QUALIFICATIONS OF THE SYNTHESIST. – The synthesist must have a constructive mind, for he determines the sequence of events as well as the method of attack. He must have the ability to see the completed whole which he is trying to make, and to regard the elements with which he works not only as units, but in relation to each other. He must feel that any combination is influenced not only by the elements that go into it, but by the inter-relation between these elements. This differs for different combinations as in a kaleidoscope.

The relationship between the analyst and synthesist was best explained by Gilbreth as:

If synthesis in Scientific Management were nothing more than combining all the elements that result from analysis into a whole, it would be valuable. Any process studied analytically will be performed more intelligently, even if there is no change in the method. But the most important part of the synthesist’s work is the actual elimination of elements which are useless, and the combination of the remaining elements in such a way, or sequence, or schedule, that a far better method than the one analyzed will result.

Final Words:

Lillian Gilbreth’s ideas, as the cliché goes, were truly ahead of her times. We have all benefited from her brilliance. Gilbreth viewed a synthesist as a conserver of a valuable elements as well as an inventor involved in invention of better methods of doing work, such as tools or equipment. She also said that a synthesist is a discoverer of laws because they have the ability to understand why the parts are working the way they are, in relation to one another. A systems thinker fuses analysis and synthesis. Moreover, a systems thinker should be able to find differences among apparently similar things and similarities among apparently different things.

I will finish with further ideas from the 18th century French Philosopher Victor Cousin:

The legitimacy of every synthesis is directly owing to the exactness of analysis; every system which is merely [sic] an hypothesis is a vain system; every synthesis which has not been preceded by analysis is a pure imagination: but at the same time every analysis which does not aspire to a synthesis which maybe equal to it, is an analysis which halts on the way.

On the one hand, synthesis without analysis gives a false science; on the other hand, analysis without synthesis gives an incomplete science.

Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was The Truths of Complexity:

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