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November 21, 2016 Ken Schroeder Passes: Ken is one of those rare individuals who without, Moore’s Law might well have ended earlier — because without KLA, and later KLA-Tencor, Moore’s Law would have been crushed by yield barriers long ago. Ken’s contribution was not so much technical as it was to bring discipline at a time when the entire American equipment industry needed it most. As fabs evolved from labs to real manufacturing sites, a far more disciplined approach to making equipment was needed to meet the quality, reliability, and repeatability of wafer fab equipment. Tools shipping from KLA had been more like prototypes. Ken brought process to KLA’s manufacturing. Ken Schroeder would prove to be the manufacturing genius behind KLA’s early rise and would later succeed Ken Levy as CEO.
Ken Levy said of Ken Schroeder that, “He was the perfect partner, because I had a vision of what was needed. But he could make it happen. He put in business processes and drove continuous improvement, so our customers could rely on the company delivering a reliable product on time, and to spec.” That was something unique in the eighties, when KLA was rising to the top.
You could tell Ken was a man of discipline in the methodical way he walked and talked. He rarely, if ever, spoke in anything but complete sentences. And he brought this discipline across the entire company. His strategy was succinct: “A good plan executed perfectly is far better than a great plan executed poorly.” Ken was someone who “crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s.” He drove performance and execution throughout the organization. If you committed to a goal, you could bet that his admin would have sent a reminder before you got back to your office. He was tough and made you accountable. But more like the hardnosed teacher that drives you to meet a level you didn’t know you had. Everybody got better because of him.
His goal was to ensure that KLA-Tencor tools were of the best reliability, quality, and value that a customer could buy. But while others may have focused on just the tools, Ken was focused on excellence throughout every area of the business. It was not just a tactical approach: it was strategic. Ken was the source of the maxim: Discipline in development leads to long-term sustainable competitive advantage. His principle was that all it takes is being relentlessly on schedule. If you bring new products to market in two years, while your competitors do it in two-and-a-half, in ten years you will be a full generation ahead of them. Eventually KLA-Tencor had no competition because of this.
One way to know Schroeder’s value is that he Schroeder left for a few years in the late eighties, some of the people he’d pushed so hard were eventually pushing to bring him back. Fortunately for the industry he did return to the company. Six years after he returned, he co-led the merger that formed KLA-Tencor. Today it remains a juggernaut in no small part due to the culture Ken instilled, proving the importance of process to ensuring an organization thrives well beyond the limits and lives of its leaders. Or as Ken Levy summarized so well, “Ken Schroeder made an incredible contribution to the growth and success of KLA and later KLA-Tencor.”
Ken was inducted into VLSIresearch’s Chip Making Industry Hall of Fame in 1996. For more on his impact see Kenneth L. Schroeder.