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Jack Covert is the founder and president of 800-CEO-READ, a specialty business book retailer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Todd Sattersten runs BizBookLab, a company that identifies, develops, and launches business books around the world. Todd is based in Portland, Oregon.
To Engineer Is HumanHENRY PETROSKI
Reviewed by Todd
Everything fails it is just a matter of when. Parents forewarn their children that failure is common even likely, through the nursery rhymes of "Humpty Dumpty" and "Jack and Jill". Our first steps and first bike rides without the training wheels give us an idea of what failure feels like, literally. As we find our balance, scraped-up knees and bruised pride happen less frequently. Henry Petroski begins his book, To Engineer Is Human, by revisiting these same children's tales, cautioning us again, and with an engineer's eye, describing a world more reminiscent of London Bridge.
Due to their design, the pen on your desk is likely to last for months while your automobile will likely get you from point A to B for many years, their life spans governed by a balance between function, aesthetic, and economy. Engineers arbitrate those competing forces when bringing an idea into the material world. This arbitration, as Petroski describes it, is something closer to art than science. But sometimes, Petroski warns, art comes at the expense of sound engineering and construction.
The construction of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City called for a grand atrium with two walkways suspended from the ceiling by a set of rods that ran through both structures. The single rod mechanism was replaced, during early planning with two separate rods to simplify construction and utilize standard fabrication techniques. This small change left the system with barely enough strength to support the walkway; adding people proved disastrous. On July 17, 1981, the walkway collapsed, killing 114 people and injuring 200 others.
Petroski uses the Hyatt Regency story to illustrate several nuances of engineering. Many parties were simply negligent: an early ceiling collapse and comments from construction workers about instability gave engineers ample warning to reexamine the walkway plans; no changes were made. Letters to the editors of trade publications following the accident also suggested what seemed like obvious engineering alternatives.
But that is the trick. Knowing the nature of a failure provides paths to the core problem, but this is a hindsight luxury the original engineers didn't have. And there we return back to the idea of engineering as art. The unique design and construction of these walkways left engineers working in a thought space that was dangerous, more so than they realized
As much as the field of study seems to be based in fact and formula, engineering is better described as grounded in hypothesis, a working practice of individuals developing ideas that tentatively describe phenomena but need constant reevaluation. Engineers spend enormous amounts of time studying the mistakes made by their colleagues. Petroski points to an Egyptian pyramid in Dahshur, with its sudden change to a more shallow angle midway up, as an early example of a trial and error method of construction. Flying buttresses on European cathedrals indicate a similar postconstruction epiphany. Computer-aided three-dimensional drafting and finite element analysis do not protect today's engineers from failure as new designs further strain the tensions between competing factors. While unequivocally a tragedy the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse becomes a valuable case study from which future engineers can learn."Engineering, like poetry, is an attempt to approach perfection."
Petroski's expertise in failure analysis provides important lessons for those in business. Formulas for organizational success, whether self-determined or suggested, are, like design, better described as hypothesis, accurate under some conditions and always open for reexamination. What engineers call a "factor of safety " and inventory analysts call "safety stock" deals with the parallel uncertainty of real world conditions on a rope or a distribution system. Businesses have their own versions of engineering's "factor of safety," whether it concerns extra boxes of inventory under the expeditor's desk or adding a few days to a customer promise for variation in the distribution center, but they'd better make sure those safety factors don t inflate and allow sloppy business practices.
Much lip service is given to accepting failure in business as a natural phase in the learning process yet internalizing the idea seems a little more difficult. Shareholders don't show sympathy for failed products. Customers expect their product to arrive when promised and in pristine condition. Most of the other books featured in these pages detail the workings of successful companies, while Petroski's book tells a more complicated tale of failure, one in which business practitioners can find wisdom. The most important lesson has to be appreciating failure as a learning opportunity. Failure is common. Not learning from failure forces companies to repeat the same mistakes. In engineering, that repetition can cost lives; in business, our livelihood.The Essential DruckerPETER F. DRUCKER
Reviewed by Jack
When we were choosing the books for the management section of our 100 Best list, we both knew that Peter F. Drucker had to be represented. But which book to include? Though his name is often bandied about in business thought circles, Drucker's books are often considered too dense to tackle in order to access his invaluable ideas and observations. Since Drucker wrote thirty-nine volumes on everything from business management to entrepreneurship to nonprofits, the options can be somewhat overwhelming.
Now, as a music fan (some might say obsessed music fan), I would never recommend purchasing a "Greatest Hits" CD. The problem with these types of collections is that they miss the nuances of the complete package the artist intended when he or she created the original album. I find this to be true of iTunes and other "singles" sources too, because listeners can pick and choose the tracks they already know. Many times I have found my favorite track only after listening to an entire CD multiple timesand I highly value that opportunity for discovery. Regardless, The Essential Drucker, indeed a "Greatest Hits" collection of sorts, is a must-read because the entire body of Drucker's work is a tall mountain to scale. While I, as a self-described music snob, may not run out to buy The Best of Mahler, there is something to be said for making academic literature accessible to the common reader, and that is what The Essential Drucker does for this brilliant man's work.
The genesis of The Essential Drucker occurred when Drucker's longtime
Japanese editor and good friend Atsuo Ueda, who had retired from publishing and gone into teaching, needed an abridged version for his students to read. The resulting collection was published in Japan in 2000. However, even abridged, it ran three volumes. The American edition published in 2001 was edited down to one volume. Mr. Drucker approved of the edited compilation as a good overview of his work.
The Essential Drucker is organized around the three emphases that Drucker focused on throughout his career: Management, the Individual, and Society. He was intensely interested in the role people play in organizations. Each chapter within these sections is derived from a single Drucker book, and a curious reader will be able go back to the source book to delve more deeply into the subject. While excerpting from only ten of Drucker's thirty-nine books, the editor acknowledges that there are five other books that could have been included but which are more technical, and therefore not included in a book meant to introduce Drucker essentials.
"Business management must always, in every decision and action, put economic performance first."
Clearly, the man was prolific, but what makes the late Mr. Drucker's writings so important? I read a ton of business books, but reading Drucker is a different kind of experience. His passages require multiple readings, not because the writing is hard to understand but because every single word is chosen with care to optimize the point he wishes to make. His sentences are sculpted, and the thoughts are read-out-loud important.
If you usually read a book with a highlighter to help remember key thoughts, you might be better served to only highlight the words that you don't want to remember, because there are far fewer of those and you will save money on pens.
For example, Drucker says that the purpose of a business is to create a customer. Simple. He states that a business enterprise has only two basic functions" marketing and innovation. Important. In the chapter on time management, he presents a strategy I have used many times when writing reviews or other important memos, and I have found it very effective. He suggests that when you have a large writing project, you should go heads down and write a "zero draft"which is very rougheven before the first draft. The "zero draft" will generally take much less time, and then you can edit and revise the piece in short chunks of timewhich are always easier to find. Practical. Yes, these are simple concepts, but the meat is in the implementation. As managers and leaders, we realize that every business has a different way of going to market, but this little volume offers essential concepts everyone can implement in their individual organizations.
Ask those you know who have a business degree and you will be astonished by the number who say they have not read Drucker. Beginning his career as a journalist, this was a man who never stopped writing, never stopped observing, and his insights were always well-founded in industry dynamics. This is not to say his books aren't daunting, and that is why we recommend The Essential Drucker as an access point to a world of unparalleled reflection on this pursuit we call business.