Thursday, January 29, 2009

Model T Thinking

A friend of mine sent me a YouTube clip about the Model T the other day, and I was amazed as I watched it. Not amazed they way you might think; not amazed at how primitive the assembly line was. Quite the opposite; I was amazed by how much smarter they were in business back then.

Henry Ford paid higher wages. He did that so that his workers could afford to buy his cars. He cut the work day from nine hours to eight hours. He did that so that his factories could work three eight-hour shifts. He was smart. He did things that were good for his workers, and that benefited his company. He invented the assembly line because he had one simple philosophy, “What is the easiest way to build this?”

Some time ago, maybe 15 years or so, I was at a talk where a "brand new idea" was being discussed. The brand new idea was to bring plant personnel into the engineering department when new products were being designed and to have them provide input as to how easy it would be to manufacture the new product so that ease of manufacture could actually be part of the design process. They gave as an example an IBM printer panel that used five different fasteners. The factory guy pointed out that the assembler had to put down and pick up five different tools in the process of assembling this panel. Nobody could explain why the different fasteners had been specified, and the design was changed to use a single type. The assembler then used one tool throughout, for an astounding savings in time and a dramatic increase in productivity, all by the simple expedient of getting some input into the engineering design department from the factory supervisor.

They were very proud of their innovative thinking, but I sort of wondered why it had taken them so long to get over a bad case of stupid.

When did they quit considering ease of manufacture in designing products, and why did they do something so incredibly stupid as that in the first place? They were very proud of redesigning the panel to use a single fastener, but how in God's name did the panel get designed to use five different fasteners to begin with? What utter moron made that initial design decision, and why on earth would anyone do something so mindnumbingly dumb?

If this is the caliber of people we have in our manufacturing industry today, then we are well and truly screwed.

Watching clips that are shown on the news as our auto industry troubles are discussed, clips of modern assembly lines, I have to conclude that this is the caliber of people we have in our industry today. Just look at the way these lines are functioning.

The lines making Model T’s were masterpieces of simplicity. Assembly started from the bottom up. Parts and subassemblies were dropped into place and bolted on. Everything pretty much literally “fell into place.” The workers were standing upright, and were holding tools which they used repeatedly; plain ordinary tools which were of a design that allowed them to be used for many, many purposes.

I will grant you that, due to driving at higher speed in a more crowded environment and with higher safety and comfort needs, today’s car is a much more sophisticated machine, but the assembly process has become complex beyond all reason.

Today’s car line has workers standing waiting for a machine to bring them a massive assembly and move it into place; they do little more than guide it. The workers are climbing into the work in process, placing parts inside the new car, climbing underneath it, and spending an astounding amount of time waiting idle for the system to bring them their next task.

Retooling an assembly line doesn’t just require retraining workers or accumulating a new set of parts. It requires that, but it also requires millions upon millions of dollars of investment to build a whole new set of unique, specialized machinery to lift, guide, insert and transport; machinery so specialized that it can only be used for one make, on one model and for one year.

I can’t help but think that part of this comes from the “you’ve got to be able to send your kids to college” mantra that is part of our political landscape today. We have developed a mindset that a college-educated professional is somehow better than a blue collar worker building cars or refrigerators.

The world, our community, needs real things. It needs food and the implements that are used to raise that food; tractors and harvesters and the like. It needs refrigerators, and railcars, and the materials to make them like steel and aluminum. Working in the factory and the mill and on the farm in a shirt that has a blue collar does not require a college education, but it is honorable work. It should be respected and it should pay well enough to support a family in a reasonable degree of comfort.

It should pay well enough and be sufficiently respected to make young men and women aspire to it. It once did. At one time the blue collar worker was sufficiently respected that engineers did ask for his input when designing new products. At one time a young man could come out of high school and get a job on which could support his family and live comfortably, and hold his head high.

Women weren’t included then, at least not sufficiently, except for briefly during wartime, but they certainly could be now. And should be.

Workers on the Model T line were respected. They were well paid, had steady employment, and they drove cars. A job on Henry Ford’s assembly line was something to be aspired to. It didn’t require even a high school education.

But the main problem, I think, is stupid thinking by employers. They design products whose manufacture requires five type of fasteners instead of one. They replace workers with robots to reduce labor costs, but those robots don’t buy products, they don’t sustain a market. Businesses drive down wages and make it impossible for workers to afford to buy their products. They create markets for less expensive products. They ship jobs overseas and wonder why nobody is buying their products. They engage in short term thinking that formulates policies that are suicidal in the long term.

Politicians have the endless slogan that the answer to rising unemployment is “education and training” but that is nonsense. The solution to rising unemployment is more jobs, and real jobs, not make-work jobs sitting at a keyboard feeding the myth of the “information age.”

Years ago, as we were supposedly moving to a service economy, I recall my father mumbling, “Hell, we can’t all make a living selling each other hamburgers.” Well we can’t all make a living selling each other Google search results either.

Henry Ford paid his workers good wages so that they could buy his cars. But they bought more than cars. They bought refrigerators and washing machines. They bought homes. They went to dinner at restaurants and they had good times at night clubs. They could afford to do these things because they made good wages.

Employing a lot of people and paying them good wages creates is good business; good for the business that does it and good for other businesses. That policy maintains healthy markets, sustains a society and supports an entire economy.

That’s Model T thinking, and we need to return to it.


  1. Anonymous5:28 PM

    You make a lot of sense. I might quibble about a few details, but I agree that in the process of becoming a more sophisticated and high-tech society, we have lost a great deal of the good qualities of the older society that you and I remember. Not everything new is bad, much of it is wonderful, but neither is everything new necessarily good--or smart.

  2. Anonymous5:53 AM

    But how would you justify the $20 million salaries for upper management if you let just *any* line worker or engineer have a say in running the shop?

  3. Anonymous4:25 PM

    there were a few things about this that jumped out at me,one of which was " short term thinking ... suicidal in the long term ". That is so true in many ways.

    I don;t begrudge an executive a large salary. What I do object to it the huge bonuses that have no relevance to company performance. If the company is doing poorly, (s)he should not get a 'bonus', period. A 'bonus' is just that..