McNamara on Management

19 August 2008 at 12:08 am 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

From Abraham Zaleznik in HBS Working Knowledge (via Marshall Jevons):

[Robert S. McNamara] was a brilliant student at the University of California and at Harvard Business School, where he became a member of the HBS faculty. McNamara was a devotee of managerial control, an expertise he applied in his work at the Ford Motor Company and later at the Department of Defense as secretary in President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet.

His mantra was measurement. As secretary of defense, McNamara developed, along with key subordinates, including Robert Anthony of the HBS control faculty, long-range procurement cycles. He even tried to get the U.S. Navy to subscribe to a common aircraft for the three branches of the military. The Navy refused to go along, since this branch was concerned about aircraft operating from carriers.

McNamara urged field commanders in Vietnam to apply measurement to enemy losses, but did not realize until it was too late that the measurements were unreliable to assess enemy losses. The most reliable assessments came from correspondents like Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam. McNamara published a book years after he retired to reassess the Vietnam War and his role in it as secretary of defense. His main theme was the failure to examine critically the assumptions leading to U.S. involvement in this disaster. Editorial writers took no pains to spare McNamara’s feelings.

The moral I took away from his story is to avoid the perils of the fox and its reliance on a single belief, in this case measurement, and the technology of control.

For more on McNamara’s management philosophy and experiences, Deborah Shapley’s 1992 biography Promise and Power is pretty good. I also recommend The Whiz Kids: Ten Founding Fathers of American Business — and the Legacy They Left Us by John Byrne. As these books point out, McNamara was not a pioneer in this area but a follower of Tex Thornton, head of the US Army’s Statistical Control Group in WWII and later CEO of Litton Industries. It was Thornton who brought McNamara and the rest of his “Whiz Kids,” as a group, to Ford in 1945. Harold Geneen, the most famous “management-by-the-numbers” guy, was not part of this group but shared much of Thornton’s philosophy. (See Robert Sobel’s Rise and Fall of the Conglomerate Kings.)

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Management Theory, People. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eats Wombats  |  12 July 2009 at 7:43 am

    There’s a good critique of McNamara in Henry Mintzberg’s Managers not MBAs, but not just of McNamara but the whole reductionist point-missing obsession with measurement — as part of a broader thesis about the damaging effects of an HBS education.

    At least the numbers guys could claim to be empiricists. What excuse does George Bush have?

  • 2. More on Political Moneyball - Public Signals  |  27 October 2012 at 9:52 am

    [...] and what may be outside of that which is systematically gathered and processed. Henry Mintzberg critiqued Robert McNamara’s management of the United States’s conduct of the War in Viet Nam for [...]

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