Reading Henry Ford's My Life and Work

Finding my trip to Europe extended by almost a week, my stock of reading materials reduced to less than a day’s supply, a moment for panic. But thanks to the Project Gutenberg online book catalog making My Life and Work by Henry Ford available, I am reading grandpa Ford once again. Get your free copy of Henry Ford’s classic from Project Gutenberg.
These are a few excerpts from the introduction. I can’t help but reflect on how profoundly these words must have influenced the founders of Toyota who read them and put them into practice. We could say that the essence of lean is written in this paragraph, to stop our dull hammering long enough to sharpen the chisel.
The principal part of a chisel is the cutting edge. If there is a single
principle on which our business rests it is that. It makes no difference
how finely made a chisel is or what splendid steel it has in it or how
well it is forged–if it has no cutting edge it is not a chisel. It is
just a piece of metal. All of which being translated means that it is
what a thing does–not what it is supposed to do–that matters. What is
the use of putting a tremendous force behind a blunt chisel if a light
blow on a sharp chisel will do the work? The chisel is there to cut, not
to be hammered. The hammering is only incidental to the job. So if we
want to work why not concentrate on the work and do it in the quickest
possible fashion? The cutting edge of merchandising is the point where
the product touches the consumer. An unsatisfactory product is one that
has a dull cutting edge. A lot of waste effort is needed to put it
through. The cutting edge of a factory is the man and the machine on the
job. If the man is not right the machine cannot be; if the machine is
not right the man cannot be. For any one to be required to use more
force than is absolutely necessary for the job in hand is waste.

But Henry Ford did not write this book merely to expound on his production system which would evolve over the decades into what we call lean production. For him the idea was to teach us what is true service:

The essence of my idea then is that waste and greed block the delivery
of true service. Both waste and greed are unnecessary. Waste is due
largely to not understanding what one does, or being careless in doing
of it. Greed is merely a species of nearsightedness. I have striven
toward manufacturing with a minimum of waste, both of materials and of
human effort, and then toward distribution at a minimum of profit,
depending for the total profit upon the volume of distribution. In the
process of manufacturing I want to distribute the maximum of wage–that
is, the maximum of buying power. Since also this makes for a minimum
cost and we sell at a minimum profit, we can distribute a product in
consonance with buying power. Thus everyone who is connected with
us–either as a manager, worker, or purchaser–is the better for our
existence. The institution that we have erected is performing a service.
That is the only reason I have for talking about it. The principles of
that service are these:


1. An absence of fear of the future and of veneration for the past. One
who fears the future, who fears failure, limits his activities. Failure
is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again. There is no
disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail. What
is past is useful only as it suggests ways and means for progress.
2. A disregard of competition. Whoever does a thing best ought to be the
one to do it. It is criminal to try to get business away from another
man–criminal because one is then trying to lower for personal gain the
condition of one’s fellow man–to rule by force instead of by
intelligence.
3. The putting of service before profit. Without a profit, business
cannot extend. There is nothing inherently wrong about making a profit.
Well-conducted business enterprise cannot fail to return a profit, but
profit must and inevitably will come as a reward for good service. It
cannot be the basis–it must be the result of service.
4. Manufacturing is not buying low and selling high. It is the process
of buying materials fairly and, with the smallest possible addition of
cost, transforming those materials into a consumable product and giving
it to the consumer. Gambling, speculating, and sharp dealing, tend only
to clog this progression.

Dr. Deming called on leaders to remove fear from the workplace in order to build organizations that would grow and thrive. Fear of failure and the resulting loss of power, face or influence is perhaps one of the main reasons that positive change is stifled. We sometimes think the right way to nurture an environment of positive change is to welcome new ideas. But Henry Ford knew better, and calls for a healthy skepticism towards ideas:
I have no quarrel with the general attitude of scoffing at new ideas. It
is better to be skeptical of all new ideas and to insist upon being
shown rather than to rush around in a continuous brainstorm after every
new idea. Skepticism, if by that we mean cautiousness, is the balance
wheel of civilization. Most of the present acute troubles of the world
arise out of taking on new ideas without first carefully investigating
to discover if they are good ideas. An idea is not necessarily good
because it is old, or necessarily bad because it is new, but if an old
idea works, then the weight of the evidence is all in its favor. Ideas
are of themselves extraordinarily valuable, but an idea is just an idea.
Almost any one can think up an idea. The thing that counts is developing
it into a practical product.

Henry Ford is talking about skepticism in the same way a good scientist looks at ideas or phenomena and seeks to investigate and learn through experimentation and gathering of evidence. No doubt some early readers of this passage at Toyota scribbled in the margins at this point.
The primary functions are agriculture, manufacture, and transportation.
Community life is impossible without them. They hold the world together.
Raising things, making things, and earning things are as primitive as
human need and yet as modern as anything can be. They are of the essence
of physical life. When they cease, community life ceases. Things do get
out of shape in this present world under the present system, but we may
hope for a betterment if the foundations stand sure. The great delusion
is that one may change the foundation–usurp the part of destiny in the
social process. The foundations of society are the men and means to
grow things, to make things, and to carry things. As long as
agriculture, manufacture, and transportation survive, the world can
survive any economic or social change. As we serve our jobs we serve the
world.

Making things, manufacturing, is important to a society for more reasons than the one most often stated when reflecting on the decline of U.S. manufacturing: the loss of high paying blue collar jobs. Life few other types of work, manufacturing allows us to use both our bodies and our minds and engage wholly in work by making things while thinking of ways to make things better.
Our big changes have been in methods of manufacturing. They never stand
still. I believe that there is hardly a single operation in the making
of our car that is the same as when we made our first car of the present
model. That is why we make them so cheaply.

In the same paragraph Henry Ford talks about the improvements in functionality of the product as well as improved materials and finally even the vertical integration by in-sourcing the manufacture of parts and motors. When the focus is on service through quality through making things rather than making money, we look critically and skeptically at the work we are doing and this results in creative solutions and innovation.
When manufacturers play money games and gradually lose their technical capability, becoming just a brand with a finance group, as one major American automotive company is in danger of becoming, we are in danger of turning yet more of our economy into what Henry Ford calls respectable graft:
There is plenty of work to do. Business is merely work. Speculation in
things already produced–that is not business. It is just more or less
respectable graft.

Henry Ford famously said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business.”
On service, money and a life of ease:

Money comes naturally as the result of service. And it is absolutely
necessary to have money. But we do not want to forget that the end of
money is not ease but the opportunity to perform more service. In my
mind nothing is more abhorrent than a life of ease. None of us has any
right to ease. There is no place in civilization for the idler. Any
scheme looking to abolishing money is only making affairs more complex,
for we must have a measure. That our present system of money is a
satisfactory basis for exchange is a matter of grave doubt. That is a
question which I shall talk of in a subsequent chapter. The gist of my
objection to the present monetary system is that it tends to become a
thing of itself and to block instead of facilitate production.

Henry Ford said, “There is but one rule for the industrialist, and that is: make the highest quality goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.” What would Henry Ford think about our global economy and the pursuit of ever lower labor costs? Service, money and a life of ease: these are ideas worth reflecting on with skepticism.We should insist on being shown whose ideas are working and whose are not, and strive to do better.