An event in American manufacturing that could change the course of our history for the good just might be unfolding in Detroit. It is just possible that he Ford family is finally taking back their company.
In 1946, Henry Ford was old, crabby and maybe nuts. His son, Edsel had died way too young. Edsel’s son, Henry II, was in charge of the company, but at the age of 29, he was woefully incapable of running the show. Make no mistake that Ford was a manufacturing powerhouse at the time. Their products were no good, but the products they made were built at low cost, with high quality and in incredibly short cycle times. The company was in trouble – but not because of manufacturing.
Edsel’s wife, Eleanor, took charge of the family affairs, including the Ford Motor Company, albeit informally. She looked to General Motors for professional help to support Henry II. Not out of kindness, but out of fear that Ford going under would put GM in trouble with the monopoly police, Alfred Sloan sent Ernie Breech to Ford to help out.
Breech was a pure GM accountant. He effectively ran things as President while Henry II was Chairman, but really Breech’s apprentice. They brought along a few more GM numbers guys, and hired a gang of number crunchers from academia and the War Department who came to be known as the ‘Whiz Kids’. Fortune Magazine hailed the move as "putting the GM organizational garment on the Ford manufacturing frame". The garment crushed and smothered the frame. Ford became an accounting and numbers driven outfit, just like GM. In a few years, costs were up, quality was pathetic and inventories were bloated. The last true American manufacturer was gone.
For 59 years Ford has stumbled along as a miniature GM, all finance driven with lousy manufacturing. Toyota makes it clear that they learned lean from Ford. But you can read the Toyota stuff backwards and forwards and not find mention of assembly lines. Everyone has assembly lines – even GM and Delphi. Toyota did not need to learn assembly lines from Ford – assembly lines are no big deal. They learned manufacturing management from Ford. Thankfully they were able to do so before Ernie Breech killed it.
Now comes Bill Ford. While the latest travails of the auto industry sparked GM and others to immediately do the only thing they know to do when it comes to manufacturing – announce massive layoffs and plant closings – Ford is still thinking. He says it is apt to be January before the long range vision for Ford is completely rolled out. But on Monday, he issued a statement to all Ford employees, that included the following:
"Anyone who thinks or attempts to convince you that it’s business as usual at Ford is wrong and would best serve us all by pursuing their interests elsewhere. Our heritage of innovation must be reclaimed and renewed or the greatness of our company will become part of our past. It’s that simple"
It sounds to me like this ‘buy into the vision or get out’ announcement, coupled with the massive employee communications system they put in to enable everyone to share ideas with the top people, coupled with the fact that there has been serious housecleaning in the executive offices, might be a sign of Ford moving to shed the "GM organizational garment". I also have to be impressed with the fact that Bill Ford brought his brother in law in to be his right hand man. As much as I have belittled ‘dim witted in laws" in family businesses, this guy is unique. He is not a business guy – he is a history guy. He is a walking encyclopedia of the Ford family and Ford Motor Company heritage.
Reclaiming Ford’s pre-1946 values will be a daunting task, if that is what he is up to. It is a goal worth pursuing, however. The Ford of those days was not looking for consultants to teach them the ‘Toyota Way’. Rather, Toyota people were at the gates of the Ford plants trying to learn the Ford Way.
I sure hope he makes it.