Does Form Always Follow Function ?

Someone recently suggested to me the idea that function can sometimes follow form, though somewhat counter intuitive it is worth examination. In the Wall Street Journal this week (May 21, 2012) is an example of a steel mill in Burns Harbor, Indiana that was bankrupt in 2002 but is now in full production by twinning with a steel mill in Belgium and implementing Belgium technology.

In 2008, Burns Harbor was “twinned” with a hypermodern mill in Gent, Belgium. The weaker mill is ordered to copy the practices of the better mill, while the stronger is told to keep its edge. Over 100 U.S. engineers and managers were flown across the Atlantic and told: Do as the Belgians do. Change in technology became the core transition with Burns Harbor moving from 80% back and 20% brain power to 80% brain and 20% back power.

In an interesting twist of the traditional form follows function linear theory, a new form was imported and resurrected a function that was dead. As Miller (2012) states in his article:

“Burns Harbor now enjoys record output. Its furnaces…are run with software developed in Belgium. Robots are in. Pencils are out. Workers are learning to make the same amount of steel with nearly half the people it employed three decades ago. Productivity is nearing Belgian levels”.

Though often criticized as the destroyer of US manufacturing, in many cases globalization puts pressure on U.S. factories to become more efficient to keep up with global competition, making it possible for them to survive. Jim Collins in his book Good to Great describes Kimberly Clark’s decision to sell the mills and focus on consumer products as one that would pit them against “world class competition…and would force them to achieve greatness or perish” (pg. 20). Ultimately Kimberly Clark did achieve greatness and became one of Collin’s Good to Great companies. Though Kimberly Clark did this voluntarily, Burns Harbor was forced by bankruptcy, and a new owner, to compete globally and to survive. The jobs of 3,700 people were preserved.

Though the general pattern of form follows function will remain the standard, in some cases this is reversed and with great benefit.

References

Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great : Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t. New York (NY): Harper Business.

Miller, J. (2012). Indiana Steel Mill Revived With Lessons From Abroad. U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, May 21, pg.A1

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