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Henry Ford: The Father of Lean

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Henry Ford wrote "My Life and Work" in which he described beliefs, values, and manufacturing practices which led his company to a dominant position in the automotive industry in the 1920s. Ford's thinking about the nature of work and workers had a major impact on Toyota's development of what came to be called "Lean manufacturing."
In 1950, Eiji Toyoda took a team of managers on a 12-week tour of US automotive plants to learn how to improve Toyota's production processes. What he saw didn't impress him. However, he read two books written by Henry Ford in the 1920s, "My Life and Work," published in 1923, and "Today and Tomorrow," in 1926. In these books, Toyoda found ideas about the nature of work and workers which his company would expertly and diligently apply and, in the process, trigger an industrial revolution. This podcast reviews these revolutionary ideas, developed by an individual who can rightly be called the Father of Lean Manufacturing, Henry Ford.
Duration: 11:59 Audio MP3
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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 early 50s. 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 "Today and Tomorrow," as well as Ford's book, "My Life and Work," published in 1923. In these books, 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 this industrial revolution first impact Toyota rather than Ford's own company? There are two answers to this question. The first is that Ford's thinking did very much impact his company in the early part of the twentieth century. The second is that for a whole complex of reasons, by the 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 a company that made only 2,700 vehicles in 1950 into a company that occupied the number one position in automotive manufacturing in 2010.

What are the ideas that Toyota learned for the writings of Henry Ford and which have shaped 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."
    The Lean Manufacturing process, 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 in the year 2010 when, for example, a TowersPerrin study conducted ten months ago shows that only 35% 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.
  • Ford said: "No one ever considers himself an expert if he really knows his job."
    Lean teaches that there is always a gap between an individual's performance and an individual's 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 and it is teamwork based on a belief in the absolute value 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 defects 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's 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, over the past ten years line workers have submitted for approval over 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 as 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.

Next week's podcast will review those beliefs upon which the successful implementation of Lean work processes depends. Have a good week and as I said last week, if you'd like to discuss any of the ideas shared in these podcasts please call me anytime at 314-303-0612. I look forward to discussing them with you.