Richard Muther is an expert planner who made his name analyzing and improving manufacturing processes. Yet happenstance directed him toward this calling.
Muther, 94, says he didn’t have the grades for MIT, but he did have something most applicants during the Great Depression did not: money for tuition. That couldn’t guarantee that he would stay, however. He failed freshman chemistry and would have been dismissed if he hadn’t convinced a dean to let him continue as a special student. Temporarily freed of required courses, he dabbled in Course XV and discovered an affinity for production management.
Though Muther found the academics challenging, he was a master on ice, where he captained MIT’s hockey team. After breaking his leg in a game against UNH, he spent three weeks in semi-traction and had little to do but think. “I had never had time to talk to myself in such a deliberate way,” he says. Before he left the hospital, Muther had mapped out a career plan that included management, teaching, and consulting.
He returned to his studies with a new commitment, passed freshman chemistry, and thrived under the guidance of Erwin Schell, the first head of Course XV. Muther was accepted for graduate study, appointed to the teaching staff, and selected as principal researcher in a study of mass-production methods. He reported his findings in the nation’s first book on the subject, Production Line Technique, published in 1944 by McGraw Hill. That volume would be the first of 15 books Muther has authored, including a 2006 memoir, Reaching: Love Affairs with Industry.
Since leaving MIT, Muther has followed his multiple-career plan. After teaching and managing, he met his third goal in 1956 by founding Richard Muther and Associates, an industrial-management and engineering consultancy that has worked with dozens of companies in 22 countries. It is now headed by Lee Hales, SM ‘80, who has been with the company for 30 years. Muther, a recipient of the Gilbreth Medal awarded by the Society for Advancement of Management, now serves as chairman of the Institute for High Performance Planners. He lives in Kansas City, MO, with his wife, Louise. They have two children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.