Remembering Mike Hammer

Although it’s nearly one year old, as I came across it again, its worth reflecting: Tom Davenport about the death of his Reengineering-inventor-colleage Mike Hammer:

Donnerstag, 20. November 2008, 18:31:05 | Tom Davenport

You probably heard that Mike Hammer, often known as the “father of reengineering,” died unexpectedly at age 60 few weeks ago. I worked closely with Mike for seven or eight years, and together we started a successful research program on IT management called PRISM. Anyone who writes on the “next big thing” owes him a major debt, and I learned a lot from him.

What we owe Mike for most is his relentless focus on business processes and their radical improvement. The only next big thing that he was really interested in was how organizations can improve how they do their work. In Isaiah Berlin’s taxonomy, he was clearly a hedgehog–he knew one thing really well, and that thing was his lens on almost every aspect of business.

Mike was trained as an electrical and computer engineer at MIT, and then became a professor. I don’t know much about his life and work there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he focused on the process of compiler design–or some other process-oriented topic–at that time. When I met him in 1983, he was well into a process-focused perspective on “office automation.” His perspective was that it didn’t make sense to use office automaton tools–word processing, copiers, etc.–to support existing office procedures. Instead, he argued, the procedures should be redesigned to take advantage of the new technologies. This message, of course, recurred throughout his career.

Mike and I were working together at the beginning of “reengineering.” We found some PRISM sponsors, including IBM, Mutual Benefit Life, and Hewlett-Packard, that had dramatically improved their business processes through the use of IT. We parted ways shortly thereafter, and started competing to get some key ideas on paper. Jim Short and I beat Mike by a few weeks to publish the first article on the topic. Mike, however, wrote a much more attention-getting piece in Harvard Business Review, and thereafter he was known as the reengineering guru. The same pattern prevailed in books–I wrote the first one (Process Innovation), but Mike and Jim Champy penned the blockbuster tome Reengineering the Corporation.

Both Mike’s writing and his speaking were bombastic and revolutionary in tone. I wasn’t always happy about how the ideas came out, but I was happy that he got the attention of managers and businesses. From Mike I learned that how you present the ideas is just as important–if not more so–than the quality of the ideas and the research behind them.

Mike could be cranky, arrogant, and stubborn, but he was always worth the trouble to work with. He never lacked–in 1-to-1 interactions or large conferences–for jokes, interesting stories, and distinctive perspectives on people and events. He never gave a boring presentation. Even though he stuck with reengineering and business processes for several decades, he always had new and interesting things to say and write about them.

Mike Hammer the man was just as interesting as Mike Hammer the guru. No one was more conversant with cutting-edge business ideas and technologies, but he also maintained a fierce and old-fashioned loyalty to his family and his religion. He had all the latest computers and networks, but he never touched a lightswitch on the Sabbath. He could speak with CEOs around the world, but he preferred the company of his family any day.

Mike was sufficiently prolific that it will probably take companies many years to absorb and implement all of his ideas. And radical process change is difficult no matter whose methods you follow. But without the enthusiasm and the impetus he provided, reengineering will be even harder without Mike Hammer.

HBR Editors’ Blog

Michael Hammer: A Tribute to the Guru of Operations

8:45 AM Monday September 8, 2008
by Anand Raman

In December 1993, a book smelling like new arrived at my worktable in Delhi, India. Its title, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, left me cold initially; I had OD-ed on the word revolution for too long. I needn’t have worried, though; the first book co-authored by Michael Hammer–who passed away in Boston on September 4, 2008–lived up to the hype. Companies should redefine the way they do things instead of using computers to replicate inefficient processes, argued Hammer and co-author James Champy, who now heads Perot Systems’ consulting practice. Importantly, they were among the first to predict that instead of control and efficiency, every business process–such as the sequence of steps from accepting an order to fulfilling it–would have to focus on innovation and speed in the future. India’s economy was then opening up to foreign competition, and CEO after CEO in the mid-1990s extolled the virtues of business process reengineering. Hammer quickly became a local legend although like all prophets, he drew as much criticism as praise in his homeland.

Twelve years later, I was in Delhi but visiting from Boston, where I now worked for Harvard Business Review. One evening, as we hurtled around in an auto-rickshaw–the three-wheeled vehicle everyone in the city uses–I saw my boss looking at his Blackberry and saying something about a new proposal from Hammer. Michael Hammer! I quickly made my pitch above the engine’s roar and before the trip ended, I had landed a chance to work with the master guru of process. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. Hammer had been building on his work by writing for HBR, on average, every three years. He followed up a 1999 article on How Process Enterprises Really Work with The Superefficient Company in 2001, which showed executives how to make cross-company processes more efficient, and in 2004, he described how enterprises could create innovative business processes in Deep Change: How Operational Innovation Can Transform Your Company.

Hammer was the most un-hammer like person I have ever met. I had been ready to deal with an impossibly busy and impatient person with evangelical zeal–even someone like the hardboiled Mike Hammer that Mickey Spillane had created. Nothing prepared me for a punctual, soft-spoken, details-driven gentleman, who listened to everything you said; took copious notes, to my dismay; and worse, responded to every little point you made! Hammer embodied the university professor; even after graduating from and teaching computer science, he never left MIT. His offices were in Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA, and he helped set up several hi tech companies. Sure, he believed in the power of business processes, but Hammer often betrayed regret about the fact that corporate America had used the term reengineering as a synonym for lay-offs.

In 2007, HBR published The Process Audit, a seminal piece that laid out the road to process, as Hammer called it. After working with a group of companies for five years, he developed a framework for creating and sustaining high-performance processes. Hammer’s model allows companies to evaluate business processes in terms of their design, supervision, staffing, measurement systems, and infrastructure. It enables CEOs to understand where a process is–and isn’t–strong, and provides a blueprint for improvement.

Buoyed by the reception to the article, Hammer told me he was writing a new book this summer, and in June 2008, we started talking about his next HBR article. It was at the confluence of our interests: process and globalization. He described a conference he had run, noting that: “On the one hand, companies are moving from being multi-national to being global; i.e., working in a consistent way everywhere. On the other hand, standardizing processes changes the very nature of business units.” When I pushed back, he explained that business units are no longer independent, but merely executors of centrally designed processes. The skills needed to run them in the future will therefore be different. “I believe this is an important development that heralds a new kind of organization,” he wrote. A day later, Hammer emailed me a post-script: “We could position the piece as The End of the Business Unit since process standardization is doing just that.” He signed off, as always, “MHammer.”

I had hoped to meet Hammer to discuss the end of the business unit after the Labor Day holiday, but that was not to be. To my eternal regret, my first project with Michael Hammer turned out to be his last HBR article.


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