The Numbers Gospel


By John A. Byrne

Doubleday x 581pp x $27.50

They started as a team, young officers in World War II. Their achievement was to impose on a chaotic Army Air Force a system of rational management based on statistical analysis. When the war ended, their brash leader, Colonel Charles "Tex" Thornton, telegraphed Henry Ford II to offer the group's services. With the same skills they had used in the war, Thornton claimed, these men could rescue Ford Motor Co. from its profound slump. Ford bought the package.

As the numbers-oriented bunch transformed the auto maker, they were dubbed the Whiz Kids. The best-known, Robert S. McNamara, rose to be president of Ford before leaving to become Defense Secretary and preside over the tragedy of Vietnam. He then went on to head the World Bank. Another Whiz Kid, Arjay Miller, also became Ford president. Others fared less well. Among the first to leave the company was Thornton, who found eventual, although not lasting, success in shaping Litton Industries Inc. into the model of the modern conglomerate.

At Ford and elsewhere, the Whiz Kids spread the gospel of management by the numbers--often at the expense of emotion, intuition, even product knowledge. BUSINESS WEEK Senior Writer John A. Byrne probes the consequences of this "revolution," counting among them the very loss of U.S. competitiveness.

But this is more than a management critique. Delving deeply into the men's private lives, Byrne explores how the personal shaped the professional--the dreams the men dreamed, the risks they might, or might not, dare to take. The Whiz Kids is a tale of ambition and disappointment, loyalty and rivalry, success and failure, second chances and suicide.

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