The Ford old plant at Piquette Avenue in Detroit was put on the list of National Historic Landmarks by Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton yesterday, which is a good thing, indeed, for manufacturing. It is not the first manufacturing site to make the list – John Deere’s original shop is one interesting place to make it and the Ford River Rouge Complex, still in operation is also there. The reason for putting it on the list is more because of the invention that took place at Piquette Avenue than the manufacturing. In an upstairs corner of the building is an area that Henry Ford had blocked off in which the Model T came to life. In that regard, the building joins the original Bell Labs and G.E. Labs as the site of some pretty important creative thinking.
The case could be made that Piquette Avenue is not even the place where lean manufacturing arose. After all, the great days of Ford manufacturing did not occur until the 1910’s when the company moved a few miles up the road to the amazing Highland Park plant. But the fact that the seed which led to lean was planted at Piquette Avenue is beyond dispute.
In the 66,000 square foot plant – tiny by today’s standards – over 12,000 Model T’s were made in about two and a half years. When the move was made to Highland Park, it was into a plant that was conceived to be lean. It was in the little brick building at the corner of Piquette and John R Street that Ford, Harold Wills, Charles Sorenson, Pete Martin and others struggled with the conviction that there had to be a better way. That better way took form in the most fantastic manufacturing leap ever seen before or after.
It is owned and run by a couple of guys with a shoestring budget who are trying to keep the memory alive by turning it into a museum of sorts. You can take a tour every other weekend, if you like. Most people, I am sure, would much rather go on the grand tour of the incredible River Rouge plant, but an hour or so to see where lean was born is well worth your time when you get to Detroit.
I slam the Bush administration from time to time for their manufacturing policies, but I am very appreciative that they thought to protect a place that proves that lean is not a Japanese idea – it is very much a part of the American heritage. Thanks Gale, and thanks to the boys in the Model T Automotive Heritage Complex – the gang that does the work of keeping the old plant cleaned up and available.