First, Do No Harm

September 16, 2010

Hoping for something provocative to read on a long trip, I picked up a book of short essays by Kurt Vonnegut. I have always felt an unwarranted kinship to him simply because I recall going to Vonnegut Hardware in Indianapolis as a kid with my dad, where Kurt worked summers growing up.

In his controversial novels of the ’70s and ’80s, Vonnegut had a talent for penetrating to the heart of an issue in irreverent ways — so poignant that you feel like laughing and crying at the same time. He is the closest thing to Mark Twain since, well, Mark Twain.

I was reading his account of a speech he presented to students at MIT, and he remarked, “It was one of the few times I felt I might just change the world in some small but important way.” The idea that really knocked me back was when he suggested that all the brilliant minds at MIT should have to subscribe to something like the Hippocratic Oath, as medical school graduates do. The well-known paraphrase is, “First, do no harm.”

Vonnegut spoke of physicists, chemists and biologist, and of the awesome power they had to use their knowledge and research for good — or bad. He also spoke in the same terms about engineers and architects, and the responsibility for all to do no harm to people, the environment, even societies, in the pursuit of commerce or the fulfillment of a vision — either yours or someone else’s.

I quickly jumped that thought over to the present economic debacle and the crash of the building industry. Just imagine if the Wall Street financiers, the bond-rating companies, the mortgage company executives and yes, every member of Congress, began each day with the conviction, “First, do no harm,” and truly meant it. None of this mess would have happened.

Before long, I was thinking of builders, especially the nationals, most of which looked the other way when they realized that what was happening was unsustainable, and that something was rotten in Denmark, and Chicago, Dallas, Miami and Topeka, Kan. And it carries down to the most essential basic of the business: the salesperson who pushes a family into a house they cannot afford; the superintendent who cajoles a trade for free work to cover his mistakes; a purchasing manager who unfairly shows one supplier’s bid details to another.

What if all of us, each day, began with a sincere dedication to, First, do no harm? Could it really make a difference? In the Lean building world, we would pursue the goal of always making the house better, or at least not hurting it in some way, as we strive to reduce cost in product and process. So much of what I see out there trying to pass for Lean misses this basic principle. Ironically, Vonnegut said his words fell on deaf ears at MIT. I suppose mine will too, but I can’t help thinking



Scott Sedam is president of TrueNorth Development, a consulting and training firm that works with builders to improve products, process, and profits. A senior contributing editor to Professional Builder, Scott has written award-winning commentary on all aspects of the business of home building and won the 2015 Jesse H. Neal Award, business journalism's most prestigious prize, for his commentary in Pro Builder. Scott invites you to join TrueNorth's Lean Building Group on LinkedIn and welcomes your feedback at or 248.446.1275.