Book Reviews

Henry Ford Learned from Sears & Roebuck?

By Jon Miller Published on April 15th, 2008

I am reading a fascinating book called The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. It traces the origin and development of the joint-stock company through the modern corporation and its impact on the world. At less than 200 pages it is highly readable for anyone interested in history and critical thinking on the role of the powerful and sundry non-human legal persons that exist everywhere among us today.
Julius Rosenwald, who bought out Roebuck to become the first partner in Sears, was a pioneering professional manager who streamlined the company. He is also the founder and financial backer of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Rosenwald may have also built an early lean order entry and lean distribution system that in turn inspired Henry Ford to build the automotive assembly line. According to the book:
“Rosenwald developed a mechanical scheduling system, a sort of assembly line for customer orders.”
This system was written up in the Sears catalog as “Miles of railroad tracks run lengthwise through and around this building for the receiving, moving and forwarding of merchandise” and involving “Elevators, mechanical conveyors, endless chains, moving sidewalks, gravity chutes, apparatus and conveyors, pneumatic tubes and every known mechanical appliance for reducing labor” in order to achieve efficiencies at their Chicago mail order plant, and impress the readers of the catalog no doubt.
Henry Ford is said to have been one of the first visitors to this industrial marvel. If we follow the history and development of lean manufacturing from the Ford Production System through Deming and others to the Toyota Production System, the Sears delivery system and the name Julius Rosenwald deserves to be added among the founders of modern management and lean systems.
It would certainly be interesting to learn more about the order taking and fulfillment system at Sears. If any of our readers have more information on this, or have the chance to visit Sears (perhaps they have a museum of history?) and can fill in the blanks in terms of detail, that would be appreciated by all. The Sears assembly line sounds incredibly complex, but perhaps there are examples of 100-year old ingenuity that we could copy and learn from even today.

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