Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Henry J. Kaiser: Miracle Man of the WWII Home Front

In a previous post I had mentioned that Henry J. Kaiser -- hardly remembered now outside of his health-care organization he set up -- is one of my industrial heroes. The amazing story of Kaiser, instant shipbuilder extraordinaire, shows how fast a well-managed industry can fill a production gap during emergencies, even while looking out for its workers’ welfare. I wrote about it in this article for Invention&Technology, and had the privilege of interviewing some of Kaiser's key men at his fastest shipyard, including Clay Bedford.

In 1940, Kaiser was a construction contractor who had helped put up Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee Dam and the Oakland Bay Bridge in record time. Other contractors knew him for his skill at motivating people, his ability to exploit latest technology to raise productivity, and the odd fact that he painted all his concrete trucks pink because pink was a “happy color.”

While Kaiser knew nothing about building 10,000-ton ships in 1940, his company came up with a way to mass-produce them so effectively that it ranked as the world’s premier shipbuilder by 1942. His brand-new shipyards in Oregon and California set speed records for freighters and tankers that have never been equaled.

One very effective method was “athletic industrialism” that pitted vast teams against each other and measured success in quality, cost-cutting, and speed. The man the press called “Sir Launchalot” or “Hurry Up Henry” also took care of his enormous workforce with subsidized housing, free day care centers, and a low-cost health-care system. He laid down a trolley line in Oakland, virtually overnight, to make workers’ commuting easier. Equal in importance to the bridge of ships, he gave heart to Americans at an early stage of the war when no military victories were in sight.

Suddenly FDR’s demands for other war equipment began to look more inspiring than insane. (When calling for US tank production to jump from four tanks per year to 45,000 per year by 1943, FDR had assured his aides, “Oh, the production people can do it if they really try.”) FDR considered Kaiser for the vice-presidential slot in 1944.

What’s the take-away from this astounding turnaround? Peter Drucker found his lesson in Kaiser’s optimistic ignorance: since Kaiser didn’t know how traditional shipbuilding worked, he was free to try new ways. (I believe Kaiser's success was more complicated than that, but Drucker's take on it was interesting.)

Kaiser did more than assemble ships. He created an entire system including iron mines and a new steel mill. Kaiser’s approach still offers solutions for emergency mass production, harnessed competition, cost cutting, and worker motivation. His approach could be applied productively to building the ships needed to tap “ocean thermal energy” from tropical waters. Fleets of giant floating plants could produce liquid ammonia in vast quantities for factories and power plants requiring process heat, and for fueling vehicles as well.

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