Your Problem Is Solved

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In 1921 Wilson & Company, a Chicago meat-packer, was hired by Arthur D. Little, founder of the management consulting company that bears his name, to throw one hundred pounds’ worth of sows’ ears into a big pot, cook well, and provide him with ten pounds of the gluey goo that came out. Little squeezed the goo through a spinneret to turn it into thread. He soaked the thread in a glycerin solution to soften it, and then, on a special loom, he wove the thread into a silky material. Out of that he made two purses, thus proving that an ingenious chemist could, in fact, make a silk purse out of sows’ ears.

Little did not stop there. He was not only a good chemist but a good businessman, and he ordered the preparation of a promotional booklet: “Does it not seem reasonable to you, dear Sir and Reader, that an organization which includes chemists that can make silk purses out of sows’ ears, just for the fun of doing it, is also qualified to do other things? To solve problems for instance which hold back the progress of industry … ? Who says it can’t be done? Let’s dig in and find out.”

One of the two purses that Dr. Little made in 1921 has been on display for many years at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The other, now insured for forty thousand dollars, remains the property of Arthur D. Little, Inc., which celebrated in 1986 its centennial anniversary. The story of this unusual enterprise—the story of one hundred years of digging in and finding out—has been told in detail in a new book, The Problem Solvers: A History of Arthur D. Little, Inc. , by E. J. Kahn, Jr. (Little, Brown).

Any comprehensive history of consulting would have to begin with the Delphic oracle. It is only in the twentieth century, however, that business consulting has itself become a big business. Top firms like Arthur D. Little (ADL), McKinsey & Company, Inc., and Booz, Alien & Hamilton Inc. employ thousands of people, operate in dozens of countries, and generate revenues of well over a hundred million dollars a year.

What exactly do these organizations do? ADL describes itself blandly as an “international research, engineering and management consulting organization” whose business is “to help industry, governmental agencies, and institutions throughout the world solve the problems and exploit the opportunities inherent in change.” Its professional staff, ADL goes on to explain, includes experts in “food and agribusiness, chemical industries, petroleum, utilities, metals, health care, construction, banking and other financial industries, electronics, automobiles and transportation.”

An ad published in 1907 was more concise: “Other people’s troubles are our business.” More recently ADL defined its business as the “application of research principles to solution of the problems of people who are willing to pay to have them solved.” Broad as it is, that definition seems to fit.

ADL’s headquarters are located on a forty-acre site named Acorn Park—staffers call it the Nut Park—in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Little was fond of the saying, “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” and for years the company’s symbol was a winged acorn. The history of the company bears out the adage.

Born in Boston in 1863, Arthur D. Little attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but financial considerations forced him to leave after three years. The lack of a degree did not stop him from serving eventually as president of the MIT Alumni Association and as a life member of MIT’s board. Nor did the lack of an earned doctorate (he had plenty of honorary ones) stop other people from calling him Dr. Little.

Little went to work as a journeyman chemist for the Richmond Paper Company in Rumford, Rhode Island. There he met an exceptionally able young man, Roger Griffin, with a decade of experience in chemical analysis.

In the fall of 1886 Little and Griffin formed a partnership. An ad was placed in the New England Grocer : “Examinations of Chemicals, Drugs, Paints, Oil, Grease, Soap-Stock, Soaps, Fertilizers and Fertilizing Materials, Minerals, Iron and Steel, Water Analysis, Analysis of Foods and Food Products, and all kinds of general analyses made in the SHORTEST POSSIBLE TIME and at the lowest price compatible with Accurate and Reliable work.”

The firm of Griffin & Little, Chemical Engineers, was located in cramped quarters on the sixth floor of a dingy brick building at 103 Milk Street in downtown Boston. The firm had an initial capital of twenty-five hundred dollars, raised by Little. In its first year it managed a net income of six hundred dollars on sales of eighteen hundred dollars. Seven years passed before the combined earnings of the partners reached forty-four hundred dollars in one year—exactly the amount that Little alone had earned at the job he had quit to become his own boss.

The work required patience and precision. Between 1888 and 1893 Roger Griffin analyzed fifty thousand samples of sugar, at seventy-five cents per sample, for a single chocolate manufacturer.

The work could be dangerous too. In 1893 Griffin took a moment to tighten the stopper on a flask that was leaking slightly. The flask broke, and flaming vapor leaped to cover the unlucky chemist. He died the next day.