Tuesday, July 07, 2009
Robert McNamara, the War-Fighting Auto Executive [Fred Schwarz]
An interesting article (from a magazine I used to work on) examines the 15 years that Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era defense secretary who died yesterday at the age of 93, spent as a whiz-kid executive at Ford Motors. McNamara, a brilliant student and business professor, had spent World War II in the Army doing what he later made a career of: analyzing processes statistically to make them work better.
The Stat Control team had coordinated the Allies’ global bombing campaign . . . by compiling and analyzing reams of data on planes, bombs, airfields, fuel depots, pilots, crew members, and targets. McNamara had squeezed 30 percent more flying hours out of Gen. Curtis LeMay’s B-29 bombers simply by getting a handle on the numbers of crews and planes and rescheduling them more efficiently.
Soon after the war’s end, he and his Army colleagues joined Ford, and McNamara emerged as the leader of the group. Among the gearhead “car guys” who still predominated at Ford, McNamara had a reputation for other-worldliness:
In the 1960s Ford men often repeated the story of how McNamara had “designed” a car while sitting in church one Sunday. He showed up for work the next morning with a piece of paper on which he had laid down the contours of a new model. Only he hadn’t done it with a drawing, as a car guy would have. His doodling had been in numbers. He had written down a desired length, weight, cost, investment level, and price, with no word about how the car should look or feel.
McNamara showed little patience for frills, ornamentation, or sentiment. He dismayed car buffs by changing the Thunderbird from a sexy two-seater to a boring four-seater. Yet McNamara’s specialty, cutting waste and maximizing output, was exactly what Ford needed as it emerged from a stagnant era of one-man rule by its elderly founder. When he erred, it was the result of being ahead of his time, as when he tried to sell cars based on safety and gas mileage before those things became important to buyers.
Yet if McNamara was the right man at the right time for Ford, he was the wrong man at Defense — or at least the wrong man to fight the Vietnam War; if he had left office after the 1964 election, he would be remembered as one of the best defense secretaries. His problem was that the techniques that had served him so well when allocating resources in an air war, and in rationalizing well-defined industrial processes, proved much less applicable to a jungle guerrilla war where the enemy was widely dispersed and the biggest cost item — American lives — was hard to control and impossible to set a value on. McNamara and his analysts kept solving problems only to find that the terms of the problems had changed.
The efficiency-maximizing approach, as practiced by McNamara and others, had worked during World War II because the Allies enjoyed material superiority; a high level of casualties was expected and accepted; there was little or no public dissent; and when they beat an enemy, it stayed beaten. In Korea the first three of these were still true, more or less; but in Vietnam, and today in Afghanistan and Iraq, only the first one is. Logistics and planning remain extremely important, of course; but today it’s also necessary to take into account many more things involved in a war that cannot be reduced to dollars and numbers and pins on a map.
07/07 04:55 PMShare