Henry Ford’s Great and Simple Gift: “You can do better.”

By on December 16, 2014
Henry Ford’s Great and Simple Gift

100 years ago, in Highland Park, Michigan, Henry Ford’s fledgling Ford Motor Company was operating a manufacturing plant that was putting into practice many work processes which today are vital components of what’s come to be called Lean manufacturing. If we could be transported back in time to 1914 we’d see in Ford’s plant Lean work processes such as continuous flow, JIT (just in time) parts delivery, visual controls, and pull production in action. We might also see Ford listening to one of his workers talk about an idea the worker had on how to improve a work process. Ford’s reply would probably be something like this, “That’s a great idea, Charlie, but you can do better.”

The use of these “Lean” work processes allowed Ford to achieve his primary production goal, which he described as:

“We are trying to link all processes—from the final consumer back to the raw material—in a smooth flow without detours.”

What Ford wrote 100 years ago is a perfect description of what organizations worldwide in the twenty-first century are striving for as they engage in Lean transformations.

But the Lean work processes that you and I as time travelers would see in Ford’s Highland Park plant aren’t really the heart of the matter. They are the by-products of exceptionally powerful beliefs as described by Ford in his 1923 book, “My Life and Work”:

“As I have said, everyone in the place reserves an open mind as to the way in which every job is being done. If there is any fixed theory—any fixed rule—it is that no job is being done well enough. The whole factory management is always open to suggestions, and we have an informal suggestion system by which any employee can communicate an idea that comes to him and get action on it.”

It is these beliefs that must animate any Lean transformation if it is to be successful. If this doesn’t happen, Lean fails. Period. These beliefs are the very heart of Lean:

“Everyone in the place reserves an open mind as to the way in which every job is being done.”

“No job is being done well enough.”

“Any employee can communicate an idea that comes to him and get action on it.”

We have well-tested Lean transformation resources, structured around the thinking of Henry Ford, that will help ensure the success of your work with Lean. They drive “You can do better” thinking and acting. I’d greatly value the opportunity to discuss these resources with you. You can reach me anytime at 314-303-0612. Let’s talk.

Portrait of Henry Ford (ca. 1919), Hartsook, photographer. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c11278.

About George Friesen

George Friesen serves as Business Practice Leader - Lean Manufacturing for the Workforce Solutions Group of St. Louis Community College. He has led the College's Lean business practice area since 2000. Prior to joining the College, George worked for Maritz Performance Improvement Company. Over the past 35 years, he has served a wide variety of Fortune 500 companies, specializing during the past eleven years in Lean Manufacturing, focusing especially on the 5S System, Lean leadership and thinking processes, Value Stream Mapping, and Lean team building. George is a graduate of Washington University (AB), Webster University (MA), and United States Air Force Flight Training.

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