Henry Ford: America’s First Lean Champion

By on June 19, 2018
Henry Ford: America’s First Lean Champion

In Henry Ford’s book, “My Life and Work,” Ford states, “I am trying to emphasize that the ordinary way of doing business is not the best way.” This statement gets right at the heart of the kind of thinking that drove the success of Ford Motor Company in the early part of the 20th Century and the success of Toyota since it adopted many elements of Ford’s thinking, starting in the 30s. Always question the status quo. Assume that all work processes are imperfect. Strive for perfection. These ideas, and others from Henry Ford, came to have a major impact on the development of the Toyota Production System.

How did Toyota come in contact with Ford’s thinking? Toyota’s initial contact with Ford happened in the 1930s when Toyota’s leaders toured American automobile plants and also carefully read Henry Ford’s book, “Today and Tomorrow,” published in 1926. Again, in 1950, a team of Toyota managers went on a 12-week tour of US automotive plants to learn how to improve Toyota’s production processes. What they saw didn’t impress them. They saw a lot of waste. However, they read Ford’s book, “My Life and Work,” published in 1923. In this book, Toyota managers found ideas about the nature of work and workers which they would expertly and diligently apply and, in the process, trigger an industrial revolution.

Why did Henry Ford’s revolutionary ideas get lost in his own company, while having a major impact on Toyota? For a whole complex of reasons, by the 30s, 40s and 50s, Ford had quit applying many of the ideas of its founder. To a degree this happened because Henry Ford II was focused primarily on marketing, not manufacturing, the primary interest of his grandfather. In addition, Ford Motor Company and Toyota operated in two very different environments in the late 40s and early 50s. Ford manufactured its products in an economic environment that was affluent enough to tolerate relatively high degrees of waste. Toyota, on the other hand, operated in an economic environment very much impacted by the devastation of WWII, in which scarce resources mandated the development of manufacturing processes with as little waste as possible. It is one of the ironies of manufacturing history that it took a Japanese company to take the ideas of Henry Ford and use them to transform themselves from being a company that made only 2,700 vehicles in 1950 into a company that today is at the pinnacle of automotive manufacturing.

What are the ideas that Toyota learned from the writings of Henry Ford which helped shape the Lean industrial revolution? Here are some of the most important of Ford’s ideas:

Ford said: “A worker who knows his job sees so much more to be done than he has done, that he is always pressing forward and never gives an instant of thought to how good and how efficient he is. Thinking always ahead, thinking always of trying to do more, brings a state of mind that nothing is impossible.”

That conviction that is at the heart of Lean manufacturing, Kaizen, meaning “continuous improvement,” can only happen in a work environment in which workers are, as Ford states, “always trying to do more.” Without such a perspective, there is no rationale for continuous improvement. When “always pressing forward,” becomes an organization’s dominant mindset, continuous improvement becomes an ongoing process that, with management’s energetic and informed support, is self-sustaining.

Ford said: “The whole factory management is always open to suggestions, and we have an informal suggestion system by which any worker can communicate any idea that comes to him and get action on it.”

The Toyota Production System has as one of its primary goals driving ever higher levels of employee engagement, a goal especially relevant now when, for example, a recent Gallup study showed that only 26% of workers are fully engaged in their work. Ford knew that the best ideas on how to improve work processes came from the people doing the work and that the only way to tap their knowledge and creativity was to have a very quick reaction suggestion process in operation.

Ford said: “No one ever considers himself an expert if he really knows his job.”

Lean teaches that there is always a gap between the performance of employees and their potential. A state of pure “expertise” is always striven for but is never achieved just as perfect work processes are striven for but are never attained. Fujio Cho, former President of Toyota, expressed the same idea when he said, “There are many things one doesn’t understand and therefore, we ask our workers why don’t you just go ahead and take action; try to do something. You realize how little you know and you face your own failures and you simply correct those failures and redo it again …

Ford said: “No worker is independent as long as he has to depend on another to help him. It is a reciprocal relationship – the boss is the partner of the worker, the worker is the partner of the boss.”

At the heart of Lean thinking is the concept of reciprocity and interdependence. Lean is about the full application of teamwork, grounded on a belief in the absolute value of the thinking of all team members. It is this belief, Ford’s concept of “reciprocal relationships,” that is a major force driving the high degrees of worker engagement that are found in organizations that have successfully implemented Lean processes.

Ford said: “If there is any fixed theory – any fixed rule – it is that no job is being done well enough.”

This is another way of stating one of the central beliefs of Lean manufacturing, which is that all individuals should be in a state of perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo. Henry Ford expected workers in his plants to be continually identifying waste in manufacturing processes and thinking about ways to improve these work processes and to take the initiative personally to make immediate process improvements. Toyota has precisely the same expectations.

Ford said: “Hardly a week passes without some improvement being made somewhere in machine or process, and sometimes this is made in defiance of what is called ‘the best shop practice’.”

Ford is describing what is happening in plants throughout the world that are successfully implementing Lean work processes through the practice of Kaizen, or continuous improvement. In 2002, Fujio Chou restated Ford’s thinking when he said, “We place the highest value on actual implementation and taking action … by constant improvement one can rise to higher levels of practice and knowledge.” What’s the impact of this type of thinking? At Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, KY, line workers have submitted for approval an average of 7,000 process improvement ideas per year. And it started with Henry Ford.

Ford said, describing his Highland Park plant: “Place the tools and the workers in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.”

Although the terms hadn’t yet been invented, Ford could have easily been describing Lean processes such as Value Stream Mapping, Standardized Work, or Pull Production. Ford initiated the practice of breaking down each phase of production into extremely detailed steps that were to be followed with no deviation by each worker. As we now know, it is only by the development of standardized work instructions that eliminate any random movement during the manufacturing process that work processes can be optimized. Creating these type of standardized work instructions which are targeted at reducing variability is a core component of Lean manufacturing.

Ford said: “We all do many useless things solely through custom.”

Just as happens in twenty-first century organizations that have implemented Lean manufacturing, Ford workers in the 1920s were encouraged to continually challenge the way things were done and to proactively refine work processes, continually moving toward higher degrees of efficiency through the elimination of waste.

Clearly, Henry Ford’s thinking had a major impact on the development of Lean manufacturing processes. I’d certainly recommend Ford’s book, “My Life and Work,” as very worthwhile reading for anyone interested in extending their knowledge of Lean manufacturing. It’s available at Amazon.com.

Our design of the high-impact Lean Manufacturing resources available through St. Louis Community College’s Workforce Solutions Group has been heavily influenced by the thinking of Henry Ford. If you’d like to learn more about these resources and how they could be powerful drivers of continuous improvement at your company just call George Friesen (314-303-0612) or Eric Whitehead (314-539-5022) and let’s arrange a time to meet. We’re confident that you’d find this time very well spent.

Photo: Henry Ford with Model T, 1921. This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

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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