The Age of Ford is Over: Can Companies Break Free of Assembly Line Thinking?
In the early 1900s, Detroit was a hotbed of engineering and innovation. The Dodge Brothers machine shop was just getting off the ground. And founders of classic brands like Cadillac, Buick, Chrysler and General Motors were paving the way for a new American century.
But one man and one brand stood out among the rest — Henry Ford and his Model T.
Ford didn’t necessarily have a better car, but he had a bigger idea.
He had the assembly line.
The Birth of Fordism
Henry Ford may not have invented the assembly line, but he modernized it for a new era. He used work slides and invented the first moving assembly line so that every worker in the sequence had what they needed to do their job as quickly as possible.
His signature Model Ts used interchangeable parts, and every car was painted black because the color dried quickly.
Ford’s empire may have been monochrome, but his factory foresight paid off. By 1918, half of all the cars in America were Model Ts.
Working Smarter, Not Harder
Ford shocked the corporate world when he doubled his worker’s pay to $5 a day. These competitive wages reduced turnover and helped him attract and retain human capital and expertise — raising productivity and lowering training costs.
But that wasn’t all. Ford’s productivity gains on the assembly line allowed him to shorten shifts and create the now-standard 40-hour work week. Ford’s factories worked smarter, not harder. And in less than 20 years, Ford sold 16.5 million Model Ts — creating a sales record that would stand for 45 years.
A Ford for a New Age
Gilded-Age tycoons like Henry Ford could walk the floors of their factories and spot waste in real time — cracked windshields, scrapped door panels and car parts lost in the smelting process.
Today, 80 percent of Americans work in service professions. That means scrap heaps are a thing of the past — at least the kind people can see.
If today’s work happens inside people’s heads, how can companies experience the kind of success seen on 20th century assembly lines?
It all starts with what Ford got right.
The Future of Work
Henry Ford succeeded in bringing together the “right knowledge, from the right people, at the right time, for the right purpose.” By dividing up labor and working smarter not harder, he improved speed and quality while also slashing the hours workers spent in his factories.
On the assembly line, it was easy to see which workers fit where. A mechanic couldn’t install a wheel until there was a chassis to attach it to. But in today’s conference rooms, figuring out who is needed, and when, is a much more difficult task.
In many companies, crucial projects die in crowded boardrooms where the number of opinions outweigh the quality of ideas. Contradictions abound, good ideas calcify and workers stretch their tasks to fill the time allotted. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that project failure rates at large companies stand at around 70 percent.
Assembly line thinking has failed us. So why are today’s managers and CEOs using the same techniques Ford used to build the Model T?
In today’s cross-functional workplaces, where projects are collaborative and interdependent, scientific management should be replaced by a social science approach. Employers should analyze the strengths and skills of each team member, so that the right people are in the room at the right time, every step of the way.
In a process known as EDBA, visionaries, designers, builders and activators all have a part to play in the corporate world, and the success of any project depends on getting these four groups to collaborate in the most timely, efficient and effective way possible.