Re-Engineering Michael Hammer’s Legacy

Michael Hammer died last week, at the sadly young age of 60. He made Time Magazine’s Top 25 Most Influential people in the mid-90s.

His name will (rightly) always be associated with the concept of business re-engineering. For me, it was one of those brilliant insights that you instantly “got” when you heard it, along with the spreadsheet, competitive strategy and the Byrds’ Mr. Tambourine Man.

There will be many articles written eulogizing Hammer, and he deserves every one. I’d like to touch on one small point: how a great idea can be misused by those who come later.

His insight was simple, yet profound. The Industrial Revolution worked by specialized division of labor. But at scale, specialization creates massive vertical bureaucracies. Re-engineering looked at processes, not tasks. Shift focus from marketing and production to order fulfillment and supply chain management. Hammer took a vertically organized world and saw a need for the horizontal. The impact of that simple insight has been enormous.

Then came the perversions.

Stage 1. Re-engineering became associated with downsizing. Redesign the company to get rid of workers and enhance shareholder value. Hammer’s work was used to justify the Gordon Gekko era of excesses. As the Wall Street Journal put it:

“It is astonishing to me the extent to which the term re-engineering has been hijacked, misappropriated and misunderstood,” Hammer told Time, saying that ideally, re-engineering should promote greater production and create more jobs.

Hammer may have originally been a bit naïve about the difficulty of getting people to change, though not for long; he became quite articulate about it.

Re-engineering survived the era far better than some dot-coms and i-bankers. But today, it faces another misuse—and again, it’s a misuse that dehumanizes business. It’s the belief that viewing the world through process lenses is an end, not a means.

The process revolution has been massively successful. Originally applied to manufacturing, we now see it in HR, in non-profits, and in education. I would argue we saw it at scale in the recent financial markets’ breakdown (see my post on the view 12 years before the subprime mortgage meltdown )

The process view has been used to maximize efficiency by expanding scale. The more you can break things out into modules by redefining out-sourceable processes, the more you can achieve scale by specializing modular components and outsourcing them at larger scale. That lowers costs, makes markets bigger and more fluid, and in theory makes for less risk.

But it seems to come at one big cost—the cost of integration. Ironically, this is similar to the flaw Hammer saw in the vertical organization—the left vertical silo didn’t know what the right vertical silo was doing. And didn’t much care.

In the mortgage debacle, the mortgage sales origination process didn’t know what the asset securitization process was doing with the mortgages. And didn’t much care.

There is risk in fragmentation. When no one has a stake in the entirety of a system—no owner, no customer, no regulator—things can go a little crazy, whether you’ve organized vertically or by processes. One answer is, “the market’s invisible hand takes care of that.” But we’re not buying that answer anymore. Markets don’t look omnipotent when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are getting taxpayer bailouts.

I didn’t know Hammer, so I welcome comments from those who did. Me, I like to think he was perfectly aware of this issue, and was in his own way working back to rescue the humanistic intent of his original insight—to make organizations work better for the sake of all constituencies, thereby transforming human relations.

Not just more efficient businesses. Not just means, but ends.

I hope that ends up being Hammer’s legacy.