Recommended Reading

About a month ago, Bill Waddell recommended a book called The Puritan Gift, written by Kenneth and William Hopper. Recommended it in pretty strong terms, in fact:

If you want to understand management – especially manufacturing management – how we got here, what has worked and what doesn’t – and how to get back on the phenomenal track American manufacturing was on before the wheels started to come off a few decades back, you have to read this book.


It is not an overstatement to describe The Puritan Gift as an essential book for manufacturing management. You really will have a hole in your understanding of the art and science of manufacturing until you take the time to let the Hopper brothers fill it for you. It will be the best $20 you ever spent.

(Bill’s full post here)

Social and intellectual history combined with practical advice on business management…sounded interesting, so I ordered a copy. I’ve read it pretty quickly and will now go back and read it in more depth, but I agree with Bill that it’s a pretty significant book. I’d encourage other Chicago Boyz and Chicago Girlz and Readerz to pick up a copy so we can discuss.

The Hoppers attribute America’s economic success, and especially its success in manufacturing, to a set of values they strongly associate with the Puritans:

1)”A conviction that the the purpose of life, however vaguely conceived, was to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth”
2)”An aptitude for mechanical skills”
3)”A moral outlook that subordinated the interests of the individual to the interests of the group”
4)”An ability to assemble, galvanize, and marshal financial, material, and human resources to a single purpose and on a massive, or lesser, scale”

The authors argue that American business went far astray circa 1970, with excessive emphasis on credentialing, too much dominance by the business schools, and too much credulity given to various forms of faux expertise…and, especially, to the rise of the “professional manager,” who was believed able to manage any kind of business, regardless of its substance.

They close the book with 25 principles for restoring good management…here are a few samples:

#3: The most important sub-system in any organization is the managerial hierarchy, which is likely to be based on some form of line-and-staff

#6: The middle manager is the keystone of the managerial arch

#8: Meetings are ‘the medium of management work’

#14: You should use consultants sparingly–and ‘strategic’ consultants never

#18: A manager should possess or acquire what is now known as ‘domain knowledge’, ie a profound understanding of the technology and business of his company, which can normally be gained only through a long apprenticeship in the company or in the same industry.

#22: Employment should, in general be for the long term–by which is meant, at least, eight and, if possible, ten years.

I don’t agree with everything the Hoppers say…I do think there are certain core managerial skills that are applicable across industries and functions, although domain knowledge is indeed of extreme importance. (And developing these core skills is at least as much a function of experience as it is of education.) And on a more galactic level, I think individualism was as important as group orientation in America’s economic success. But I think that anyone who is concerned about America’s economic future–anyone who runs a business or a part of a business, or aspires to do so–anyone who is interested in social and intellectual history–should read this book and spend some time thinking about it.

7 thoughts on “Recommended Reading”

  1. > 1) ”A conviction that the the purpose of life, however vaguely conceived, was to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth”
    > 3)”A moral outlook that subordinated the interests of the individual to the interests of the group”

    I haven’t read the book, but this sounds a bit to centralized for me to think it’s historically accurate with respect to the Puritans in New England. Indeed, one of the distinct features of that society (in say the 1600s and 1700s) was strong decentralization, both in civil and church matters. The New England towns were almost like independent city-states, and a fiercely-defended congregational polity ensured that theological diversity began to thrive very quickly, despite attempts to suppress it.

    There’s a famous old anecdote of an early minister sent north to the fishing ports of Gloucester to address lax church attendance. He told the fishermen it was important “not to forget our aim in planting this colony.” They replied, “You speak as a man of Boston, sir. Our aim was to catch fish.”

  2. RJO…hope you’ll read the book..I’d be very interested in your thoughts.

    The city-state diversity you mention isn’t necessarily contradictory to individual subordination to the group–it’s just that the individual subordination is to the city or congregational group rather than to a larger regional group.

  3. 3)”A moral outlook that subordinated the interests of the individual to the interests of the group”

    I think the American talent has been to create a system wherein individual and group interest are aligned. By basing our culture on the idea of economic exchange i.e. material trading, instead of ties of family, clan, ethnic group etc we avoided the trap of requiring individuals to sacrifice their self-interest and self-direction out of emotional obligation. Americans don’t have to recognize feudal loyalties or other types of bonds that can be exploited by powerful to force individuals to sacrifice their own self-interest to the “greater good.”

    Concepts such as “it’s just business” or “it’s the law” separate the collective from the personal. Americans can assemble large scale organization by the accumulation of myriad small economically reciprocal relationships. Each individual in the organization is in the organization because doing so provides personal benefit. Each person works for the “greater good” of the team because doing so aligns with their own self-interest. This makes American large scale organization robust.

    Tellingly, collectivist philosophies of all kinds are based on the idea that people have an obligation to surrender their own self-interest and judgement to the collective. Unions for example, require each individual to subordinate their economic benefit to that of an arbitrarily defined collective group. This requirement is so strong that historically union members have felt justified in killing individuals who do not. In all such organizations, the benefits of cheating the collective grow so great that the collective must progressively restrain the choices of individuals. The benefit of the individual and benefit of the organization begin to diverge. This makes make organizations based on non-recipicol economic relationships fragile and ineffective.

  4. Shannon,

    I don’t think the Hoppers would disagree with you at all. Their point, if I can make a feeble attempt at putting words in their mouths, is that the companies they worked for certainly served the interest of the individual employee, but served a greater good at the same time. The big employers were good for the greater community, provided jobs for many people directly and indirectly, and made products that were good for society. Working for them not only filled the selfish, material needs of the employees, but gave those employees a degree of spiritual or emotional fulfuillment at the same time stemming from the confidence that they were contributing to something worth contributing to. If you worked for John Deere, for instance, you made a good living but also knew that farmers lives were easier and more mouths were being fed as a result of your efforts – keeping the Deere company healthy was good for society, so you not only had a good paycheck, but a feeling of satisfaction of being a part of something that was good.

    In any event, I reiterate what I wrote in the post – this is a great book and I hope you get a chance to read it.

  5. Jay Richards’ Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem argues that capitalism harnessed our human nature in a way that let us express our individual ambitions in a form that helped the common good. I heard him talk on C-span but when the book arrived from amazon my daughter borrowed it before I could read it (not that I’ve time right now, anyway). But I’m curious – if any of you have read it, do you see it as opposed to, irrelevant to, or supporting the Hoppers? It’s basic insight seemed simple and yet deeply satisfying, since I’d seen how a service business leads to an active if not always deeply felt altruism. And both Jonathan Edwards, Benjamin Franklin and I suspect Frederick Douglass would argue that the habits built could eventually lead us to more virtuous feelings).

  6. 3)”A moral outlook that subordinated the interests of the individual to the interests of the group”

    I also think that item misrepresents the strong American individualist tradition.

    I’d say a better formulation of that idea might be “A moral outlook that emphasized universal Charity combined with individual responsibility”.

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