September 15, 2006

News & Opinion: When Ford Was A Startup

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 6:18 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

As Ford tries to fend off catastrophe by cutting workers, changing leadership, and looking for more ways to shrink to growth, Ive been discovering some fascinating tidbits about the company when it was the dominant organization of the world. After all, it was once the most exciting startup imaginable.
Heres a few items from Wheels for the World: Henry Ford, His Company, and A Century of Progress by Douglas Brinkley (though they might want to edit the subtitle to something more like a Half Century of Progress):
In the heyday of the Model T, people simply referred to cars as Fords, as we do today with Q-tips, Kleenex, and Xerox-ing.
For a brief period, the daredevils of the 1910s enjoyed a sport called Auto Polo, in which they did what you would imagine: played polo, using Ford Model Ts as their horse. Look it up. (And if the guy who did the movie Dodgeball ever wants a vehicle to get Johnny Knoxvile and his cronies on board, look no further.)
During the period of intense growth, production at Ford doubled every single year for the decade after 1913. And during that time the price of the car dropped by two-thirds.
As a result of local merchants gouging Fords employees who were being paid the sum of $5 a day, Ford created the first modern supermarket, the precursor to Wal-Mart. He first sold workclothes, and eventually all sort of groceries, and as a result of efficiencies, sold at a lower cost than any competitors, and still made a profit.
Finally, two excellent passages about the real revolution Ford brought about:
New and better machinery was in constant development at Ford Motor Company. It was said, in fact, that throughout the long production run of the Model T, at least one new machine or tool was introduced at the factory every single day. Not much of importance may have changed on the T to make it new, improved, or different during its nineteen-year model run, but nothing remained the same about the methods used to produce it. That was the imperative laid down by Henry Ford.
And, 1913, the first assembly line was implemented at Ford Motor Company. The process grew like a vine and eventually spread to all phases of the manufacture of Ford cars, and then through the entire world of heavy industry. There can be no doubt that a powerful revolution occurred at Highland Parkbut it was not the assembly line itself that provided the power. Rather, it was the creation of an atmosphere in which improvement was the real product: a better, cheaper, Model T followed naturally. Every man on the payroll was invited to contribute ideas, and the good ones were implemented without delay.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.