Building the Foundations
Herman Miller’s management journey started with decades of nurturing by the De Pree family. D.J. De Pree founded the company in 1923. (He named it after his father-in-law, who put up the money for the firm.) D.J. passed the CEO baton to his sons, first Hugh (for 18 years) and then Max (for seven years). The family, with D.J. De Pree in the lead, embedded two key principles that continue to inform the company’s management approach. One was a commitment to participative management; the other, a problem-solving approach to design.
The company adopted the so-called Scanlon plan for employee gain-sharing in 1950. A maverick idea at the time, the Scanlon plan called on production workers to make decisions to boost productivity, and recommended paying workers bonuses for doing so. Although the plan has gone through many incarnations, the company still engages all workers in decisions and pays them bonuses based on performance.
Max De Pree, CEO from 1980 to 1987, drew broad attention to the culture at Herman Miller by writing the bestselling Leadership Is an Art (Dell, 1990). Of participative management, he wrote: “Each of us, no matter what our rank in the hierarchy may be, has the same rights: to be needed, to be involved, to have a covenantal relationship, to understand the corporation, to affect our destiny, to be accountable, to appeal, to make a commitment.”
As if to complement the novelty of participative management, the company adopted a unique approach to problem solving, stemming from D.J.’s decision to involve the company in the world of premium industrial design — in particular, contemporary design. Outsiders familiar with Herman Miller often know more about its iconic products than anything else about the company. The Eames Lounge Chair, a cradle of molded wood veneer holding calfskin cushions, introduced in 1956, is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Aeron, the mesh-backed, ergonomic desk chair that became an icon of the dot-com era — and is still ubiquitous in many offices — was named the Design of the Decade (1990s) by Business Week.
Herman Miller came up with these products because D.J., and then Hugh and Max, made big bets on the vision of outside designers, a practice uncommon in industry then and now. Perhaps the most revered of these outsiders was Charles Eames, who started work for the company in 1946, and, together with his wife and close collaborator, Ray Eames, produced pathbreaking designs into the mid-1970s. Many continue to sell well today, decades after their introduction. The Eames Lounge Chair remains a classic in both homes and offices.
Though observers often see the Eameses’ designs as works of art, the couple’s approach was highly analytical and practical, and left its mark on Herman Miller. Charles Eames held that the first task of a designer was to recognize “constraints,” including factors like price, size, production time, strength, and support, and that the best design was the one that best balanced them. In a New York showroom, he reportedly said, “Don’t give us that ‘good design’ crap.... The real questions are: Does it solve a problem? Is it serviceable? How is it going to look in ten years?” Even though he was never a Herman Miller employee, Eames’s image appears in photos and posters across Herman Miller’s facilities and literature. His thinking has become Herman Miller’s thinking. And even today, company managers talk about business in Eames’s terms of constraints and problem solving.