Michael Hammer, 60, inspired sweeping changes in business practices

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / September 6, 2008
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Michael Hammer, coauthor of the best-selling book "Reengineering the Corporation," which urged companies to rethink how they operate and managers to abandon hierarchical structures in favor of employee teams, died Wednesday in Boston.

Dr. Hammer collapsed after suffering an apparent brain hemorrhage while bicycling during a vacation in the Berkshires on Aug. 22, colleagues said. He was 60 and lived in Newton.

In addition to writing, he was founder and president of Hammer and Co., a Cambridge business education and research firm. He taught computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

"He was a true business visionary and one of the most provocative and passionate teachers I have ever met," said Jeffrey Goding, managing director of Hammer and Company.

Dr. Hammer's first book, "Reengineering the Corporation," written with James Champy and published in 1993, was on The New York Times nonfiction paperback bestseller list for 41 weeks. Its influence on the business world led Time magazine to include Dr. Hammer on its 1996 list of "America's 25 Most Influential People."

The book, appearing at a time when American manufacturing was losing ground to Japan in fields such as automobiles and consumer electronics, promoted the idea of simplifying and reorganizing business departments by having workers break down their activities into logical, bite-size pieces. It urged companies to cut across traditional fiefdoms such as sales and marketing and use computer technology to eliminate a lot of paper-pushing and paper-pushers.

"Managers have to switch from supervisory roles to acting as facilitators, as enablers, and as people whose jobs are the development of people and their skills so that those people will be able to perform value-adding processes themselves," the book said. At the same time, it said, "those empowered to make the changes at lower levels must know they have the support of top management, or change won't occur."

By challenging traditional assumptions about the division of labor, Dr. Hammer often said his book called for "the undoing of the Industrial Revolution."

Charles H. Fine, a Sloan management professor who often invited Hammer to lecture in his classes, eulogized his former colleague at a memorial service yesterday. "He had a wonderful wit and sense of humor," Fine said in an interview. "His books laid out the theory, but to really understand it you had to be in the classroom. He was a very animated lecturer, and he brought others into the conversation."

Fine said Dr. Hammer's "Reengineering the Corporation" was a catalyst for American businesses to make sweeping changes in their operations, production processes, and supply chains. It also inspired a new generation of management consultants to work with companies on rethinking how they ran their businesses and competed, he said.

"He thought of himself as a revolutionary," Fine said. "He felt businesses needed to change in a radical way. And many of them blew up their organizational charts and started from a clean sheet of paper. A huge number of people jumped on the reengineering bandwagon."

But some analysts blamed the reengineering concept for overzealous downsizing. Dr. Hammer rejected that notion.

"The majority of reengineering efforts do not involve downsizing," he told the Globe in 1996. "They focus on speeding up operations, improving quality and flexibility. There's been altogether too much downsizing. It doesn't work very well. And I'm not to blame for it."

Dr. Hammer told Time that, ideally, reengineering should promote greater production and create more jobs.

Michael Gartner Hammer was born in Annapolis, Md., the child of Holocaust survivors. He earned his bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1968, a master's degree in electrical engineering in 1970, and a doctorate in computer science in 1973, all at MIT.

In 1987, Dr. Hammer became a management consultant, work that started his research for "Reengineering the Corporation." He later wrote three other books: "The Reengineering Revolution," "Beyond Reengineering," and "The Agenda."

In addition to his writing and management consulting work, Dr. Hammer had a passion for art, literature, music, and Jewish Talmudic study, Fine said.

Dr. Hammer leaves his wife of 35 years, Phyllis (Thurm); three daughters, Jessie and Dana, both of New York City, and Alison of Cambridge; and a son, David of San Francisco. A service was held.

Material from wire services was included in this report.

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