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Cool Books

“Lego is both a metaphor and a case study for the argument” that “simplify and repeat” is the secret of business growth and success (The Economist, 4/28/12).

It also goes to the heart of Repeatability, by Chris Zook and James Allen, who “argue that the most successful companies share three virtues. They have a high distinctive core business. They make great efforts to keep their business model as simple as possible. And they apply it relentlessly to new opportunities.”

For Lego, what began as an enterprise built on (or out of) interlocking plastic bricks careened in the 1990s into “theme parks, television programs, clothes, watches and learning labs … After years of dismal results, a new boss in 2004 took Lego back to … where it was in its heyday — on little interlocking blocks that turn children of all ages into master builders.”

Of course, simplicity can be difficult to maintain in the face of disruptive innovation. But Chris and James “argue that successful companies can survive dramatic change by deciding which bits of their business models to preserve and which to dump.”

What Money Can’t Buy

The social ethics of value are being displaced in the name of efficiency, reports Jonathan V. Last in a Wall Street Journal review of What Money Can’t Buy, by Michael J. Sandel (4/21/12). Traditionally, value has been defined in terms of the inherent value of the thing itself — a gift is meant to maximize “sympathy, generosity, thoughtfulness and attentiveness,” for instance.

This has become less true over the past several decades with the rise, for example of gift cards, which instead maximize efficiency. The advent of naming rights has similarly diluted the “inherent worth” of everything from stadiums to police cars. This represents a changing market morality, where anything becomes a commodity the moment we decide it can be bought or sold.

This can, of course, lead to bribery — because it is more efficient. When this happens, Michael writes, “it is important to remember that it is bribery we are engaged in, a morally compromised practice that substitutes a lower norm … for a higher one.”

The question is, where does it end? Why not an auction for a spot in a top college? It would be more efficient and also ensure that the spots go to those who value them the most. However, it would also “change the meaning of ‘value’ as it relates to the idea of a university.” Michael acknowledges that efficiency can in fact be “both necessary and useful,” but warns that we need to be aware of its potential corrosive effect on our established values.

To Forgive Design

Airplane windows are rounded because of the catastrophic cracks resulting from square-edged portals in 1950s-era jetliners, reports Matt Ridley in a Wall Street Journal review of Henry Petroski’s To Forgive Design (4/11/12). That’s but one example of how design failure spawned innovation.

Most of Henry’s other examples involve bridges, such as the one built in 1939 over the Tacoma Narrows in Washington State. The area was “thinly populated and heavy traffic was not expected,” so engineers designed “a two-lane bridge with a narrow sidewalk” that “was extremely narrow, light and shallow for its great length.”

This made sense until the winds kicked in and the bridge collapsed. The solution, among other things, was to build “a new suspension bridge … with four lanes rather than two to reduce the length-to-width ratio.” The result was that the new bridge attracted “economic growth to the area” and “within 50 years another was needed to handle the increasing traffic.”

In a different case, a “cantilever bridge over the St. Lawrence River” would have been “the world’s longest span,” but “it collapsed under construction, killing 75 workers.” Following the disaster, Canadian engineers wore “an iron pinkie ring” to remind themselves of the failure and recited a Rudyard Kipling poem as a ritual reminder: “So when the buckled girder / Lets down the grinding span / The blame of loss, or murder, / Is laid upon the man. / Not on the stuff — the man!”

JULY / AUGUST 2012 | PDF | Subscribe | Home