“Robert S. McNamara and the Evolution of Modern Management”

13 December 2010 at 10:25 am 3 comments

| Peter Klein |

That’s the title of a new HBR article by Phil Rosenzweig (author of the excellent Halo Effect). I’ve been interested in McNamara and his role in business history since grad school, when I was researching “management by the numbers” and similar techniques that flourished during the conglomerate boom in the 1960s. (See previous O&M posts on McNamara here and here.) Rosenzweig provides a nice summary of some of strengths and weaknesses of McNamara’s dispassionate, “rational,” quantitative approach (see especially the sidebar, “What the Whiz Kids Missed”). Lots of information and ideas related to decision theory, organizational design, multitasking, performance evaluation, innovation, etc. Excerpt:

Whether at Ford or in the military, in business or pursuing humanitarian objectives, McNamara’s guiding logic remained the same: What are the goals? What constraints do we face, whether in manpower or material resources? What’s the most efficient way to allocate resources to achieve our objectives? In filmmaker Errol Morris’s Academy Award–winning documentary The Fog of War, McNamara summarized his approach with two principles: “Maximize efficiency” and “Get the data.”

Yet McNamara’s great strength had a dark side, which was exposed when the American involvement in Vietnam escalated. The single-minded emphasis on rational analysis based on quantifiable data led to grave errors. The problem was, data that were hard to quantify tended to be overlooked, and there was no way to measure intangibles like motivation, hope, resentment, or courage. . . .

Equally serious was a failure to insist that data be impartial. Much of the data about Vietnam were flawed from the start. This was no factory floor of an automobile plant, where inventory was housed under a single roof and could be counted with precision. The Pentagon depended on sources whose information could not be verified and was in fact biased. Many officers in the South Vietnamese army reported what they thought the Americans wanted to hear, and the Americans in turn engaged in wishful thinking, providing analyses that were overly optimistic.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Business/Economic History, Management Theory, People, Public Policy / Political Economy, Strategic Management, Theory of the Firm.

Kiffin Goods In Defense of English

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. davidburkus  |  13 December 2010 at 4:38 pm

    Just downloaded an electronic copy from my school library. Looking forward to reading it. Thanks.

  • 2. srp  |  14 December 2010 at 1:31 am

    Having worked in some warehouses during college summers, I can tell you that inventory data may also be biased.

  • […] “Robert S. McNamara and the Evolution of Modern Management” « Organizations and Markets – really interesting Harvard Business Review article on Robert McNamara […]

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