Henry Ford turns 150 years today!

Henry Ford was born 150 years ago today. Though he had some extreme and vile beliefs (he was a well-known anti-Semite), he arguably created our modern world, with its paved roads and hundreds of millions of cars, suburbia, streamlined manufacturing methodologies, and high standard of living, though the later seems to be tanking in America.

I’ve never been able to re-locate this quote, but think I must have read it in a book about Ford in the 1980s: “If you need a machine and don’t buy it, you pay for it anyway.”

Henry Ford said that, or something along that line. The wisdom of that is, you get what you pay for. If you need a particular tool to manufacture a part and “go cheap”, use another tool that is worn, less precise and accurate or less durable, or just not the right tool for the job, the output of the tool reflects its limitations. You make crap!

It seems self-evident, yet managers often put off purchase of appropriate tools thinking they save money. If nothing else, they sell off their futures by institutionalizing production of inadequate product – out-of-specification, poorly machined, less durable, unfit for use… the list of potential, sometimes harmful deficiencies goes on.

Customers are the final judge of quality, and they pick up on the impact of manufacturing shortcuts, for example, when a tool breaks faster than expected or it has a flawed finish, even if finish doesn’t affect product use! If a happy customer tells ten friends about his purchase, an unhappy customer tells 20 about the crap he bought that was a waste of money.

Henry Ford understood that. And he understood, too, that manufacturing efficiencies achieved by purchasing and using the tool needed saved money, raw materials, time, labor, and reputation for his company. It was a win-win for Ford, his employees, and his customers!

Another innovation of Henry Ford’s was something the McDonald’s and Wendy’s of our time might consider when their employees strike for a living wage: Ford’s revolutionary $5 day wage at a time other manufacturers were paying half that.

His rationale was that there was no point to make thousands of Model T’s if only a few people could afford them. He wanted his employees to earn enough that they could afford the product they helped make. He made wads of money paying $2.50 a day, but he made much more and sold millions of cars after he initiated the $5 day. Among other things, at $5 a day, he had unlimited access to the best labor coming over from his competitors and other employers: Everyone wanted to work for Ford!

With the higher wages, Ford added expectations: His employees had to attend church each week, they couldn’t drink or smoke or blaspheme, they had to lead exemplary lives. Um, yeah! And he hired goons to check up on his employees to make sure they lived up to his expectations! His efforts at social engineering had serious limitations that lead to labor unrest in time, regardless of the $5 day wage.

I never joined a union. I never wanted a union in the place where I worked. I understood, however, how unbridled managers following their worst instincts regularly set the stage for unions. Unions initially help the working person to better benefits and wages. They also lead, sometimes, to a union bureaucracy that too often uses thuggery and dirty deeds on par with those used against labor by the company management they hope to rein in.

Labor history bears that out.

Management gets the labor they deserve, however. Treat people right, and they generally give a good day’s work. Abuse them, and they often fight back, sabotage quality, slow down production, take over manufacturing plants to stop production. Henry Ford and the other car manufacturers found that out big time in the late 1930s. Bad, abusive management invites unions in the front door.

Henry Ford got a lot right. He got a lot not so right. He remains one of those flawed heroes of American history. We can’t condone his anti-Semitism or his bullyboy thuggery when it came to controlling his employees (and son, Edsel), but we applaud the improvements he brought to manufacturing. They helped make the 20th Century the American century.