6 July 2009 at 9:05 am 4 comments

| Peter Klein |

f_659_whizKidsI haven’t read all the obituaries of Robert S. McNamara, who died early this morning, but the ones I’ve seen focus almost exclusively on his tenure as US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War. Few mention how he got to be Secretary — an HBS professorship, WWII experience in procurement as a member of Tex Thornton’s “Whiz Kids,” a stint at Ford Motor Company after the war, and the presidency of Ford just before taking the job as Defense Secretary. The Times notes, in passing, that “Mr. McNamara had risen by his mastery of systems analysis, the business of making sense of large organizations — taking on a big problem, sorting it out, studying every facet, finding simplicity in the complexity.” Um, OK, I guess that’s one way to describe it. In any case, none of the obituaries I’ve seen so far discusses this in any detail, or seems to realize that McNamara’s approach to managing large organizations is controversial among researchers and practitioners.

Here’s a brief comment I made last year on McNamara’s management style.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Management Theory, People.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. REW  |  6 July 2009 at 10:30 am

    I am an unabashed believer in systems thinking and the “systems approach” ascribed to the Whiz Kids. My cynicism, a product of old age, suggests that the the biggest problem with “managing by the numbers” is that it becomes “managing TO the numbers”. Some set of strategic measures are identified, incentives are aligned to either minimize or maximize these measures, and the system is switched on. At the limit, humans are encouraged by this method to mismeasure, lie, cheat, and steal — whether it is mortality statistics in Viet Nam or asset values on Wall Street.

  • 2. Bart  |  6 July 2009 at 11:19 am

    He was even president of ford motor company before becoming secretary of defence. For a complete lodown on the man, see the pbs documentary: “fog of war”.

  • 3. Warren Miller  |  7 July 2009 at 8:23 pm

    Let us not forget that, as the president of Ford Motor Co., McNamara killed the Edsel. It’s amazing to me that a guy who could recognize a lemon car couldn’t recognize a lemon war. An old friend of mine put it this way: “You know, people told me in 1964 that if I voted for Barry Goldwater, we’d have 500,000 men in a land war in Asia. Well, I voted for Goldwater, and you know something? I’ll be d***ed if we didn’t have 500,000 men in a land war in Asia.”

    For what it’s worth, after McNamara got his undergraduate degree from UC-Berkeley in 1937, he went straight to Harvard Business School. He graduated in 1939, spent a year with Pricewaterhouse, and then returned to teach at HBS in 1940. I guess it speaks to the arrogance of the Harvard faculty back then that they would think that a 24-year-old has anything to say on the subject of business that tuition-paying students would find useful. I would have demanded my money back.

  • 4. The Institutional Logic of War « Code and Culture  |  20 July 2009 at 4:28 am

    […] lost Robert McNamara last week, although I was too busy to blog it at the time. (Organizations and Markets was more timely). McNamara began as an academic, educated at Berkeley and working at Harvard. […]

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