If you’ve ever been involved in project management, you’re bound to be familiar with Gantt charts. But who invented them?

Unfortunately, Henry L. Gantt (1861-1919) has slipped into obscurity somewhat. However, he was a busy mechanical engineer who did much more than just lend his name to a popular planning tool. Other ideas that he explored in relation to valuing individual employees, for example, were truly remarkable. This blog entry aims to fill in some of the blanks about Gantt and his ideas and may even help you see those prolific Gantt charts in a different light.

A determined start

Gantt spent most of his childhood in Baltimore and showed diligence and perseverance from an early age. For example, he completed his schooling at McDonogh School, whose former pupils traditionally had the best chances of securing a place at an Ivy League university (such as Harvard, Princeton or Yale). He, however, opted for nearby but prestigious John Hopkins University. After a brief period as a teacher at his former school he returned to university. He left Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey with a Masters degree in mechanical engineering.

In 1884, at the age of 23, he started his career as a draughtsman back in his home town. Three years later, he was working at Midvale Steel under Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor was the author of Taylorism, a method that aims to boost effectiveness by controlling work centrally and breaking it down into numerous small steps. Incidentally, the exact opposite of this approach is Lean Production, which would later take the place of Taylorism.

Gantt chart: A classic project management tool

Later on, Gantt won great acclaim in specialist circles thanks to his books “Work, Wages, and Profits: Their Influence on the Cost of Living” (1910), “Industrial Leadership” (1916) and “Organizing for Work” (1919). He was highly respected as a consultant for general management issues and worked for the US government during the First World War. He died shortly after the end of the war, in 1919. Thanks to the invention of the Gantt chart, which is named after him and builds on work done by Karol Adamiecki (1866-1933), Henry L. Gantt is still a part of many lectures, training courses and projects to this day.

The advantage of the Gantt chart lies in how easy it is to understand. Various activities or work packages are listed one on top of the other on the left, while the corresponding bars on the right map out the duration of each activity on a horizontal timeline. If, for example, the half-way mark on the bar for project phase A overlaps the start of the bar for project phase B, this indicates that phase B can start as soon as phase A is half complete. Dependencies between project phases can also be depicted using arrows.

Henry L. Gantt’s legacy

Although Gantt is known today primarily for this central idea, many of his other achievements are no less progressive. For example, he designed the “task and bonus system”. Under this system, workers receive a percentage bonus over and above their usual pay if they achieve a set daily rate of work. The faster they complete their work, the higher their additional bonus payment. Penalties for slower rates of work are expressly excluded. Gantt was about motivating people rather than putting them under pressure. Later on, he promoted the idea of rewarding managers when their staff achieved the set targets. An incentive had to be created to get employees to share their expertise.

This increased the role of staff training. Gantt envisioned an end to the days of “coercion” and the dawning of the “knowledge” era – he was well ahead of his time. Today, with the advent of digitalisation, lifelong learning has long since become essential. Corporate social responsibility was another area close to Gantt’s heart that has risen to prominence again in recent years. His ideas live on today in the “Henry Laurence Gantt Medal”, which the American Society of Mechanical Engineers has awarded every year since 1929. The award honours distinguished achievements in management and social responsibility. As such, it recognises two key aspects of Gantt’s work – improving efficiency and living up to one’s responsibilities.

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