Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Robert McNamara, a pioneer in Operations Research

Robert McNamara (1916-2009) passed away this week leaving an interesting, diverse legacy to the world. McNamara is most notable as the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administration during a time of extreme global conflict, most notable the Vietnam War. Yet not so familiar was McNamara's legacy to promoting Operations Research and the idea of applying mathematical principles to help decide large scale organizational challenges.

McNamara was known as the original Whiz Kids by the Ford Motor Company. He used his know-how from World War II to help Ford reduce costs and improve organizational efficiency. Some of his most notable contributions came with planning, management control systems, and developing a recruitment program for maintaining talent within the company.

As Secretary of Defense McNamara continued to promote systems thinking and analysis. McNamara stressed holistic views of management for all types of programs within the Defense Department. He mainly used civilian systems analysts as they were more independent from the day-to-day military rigor and could think with an outside point of view. One notable achievement was instituting the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System implemented by his Comptroller Charles Hitch.

McNamara also served as head of the World Bank. He started programs that would evaluate the effectiveness of World Bank funded projects.

McNamara will be noted in history most likely for his political influences. Yet there will be no doubt about his role in promoting the science of applied mathematics to better decision making.

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