Ford on his Car Factory

Henry Ford (1863–1947) certainly knew that the changes he was instrumental in bringing about were momentous. His autobiography, My Life and Work (1923), reads much less like a life story than a reflection on the nature of modern industrial work and management. Selling millions of copies, the book is no mere personal narrative. It is one of the most important and most influential management texts of the 20th century, a moral lesson about modern industrial society. Ford prided himself in being a practical man, and ridiculed book learning.

Ford is the archetypical spokesperson for the modern industrial factory of the era of mass production and mass consumption, with its fine division of labour and largely unskilled workforce. Here is Ford speaking practically, through the man who shadow-wrote the autobiography, Samuel Crowther:

Repetitive labour—the doing of one thing over and over again and always in the same way—is a terrifying prospect to a certain kind of mind. It is terrifying to me. I could not possibly do the same thing day in and day out, but to other minds, perhaps I might say to the majority of minds, repetitive operations hold no terrors … The average worker, I am sorry to say, wants a job in which he does not have to put forth much physical exertion—above all, he wants a job in which he does not have to think …

When you come right down to it, most jobs are repetitive … For most purposes and most people it is necessary to establish something in the way of a routine and to make most motions purely repetitive—otherwise the individual will not get enough done to be able to live off his own exertions …

I have not been able to discover that repetitive labour injures a man in any way. Probably the most monotonous task in the whole factory is one in which a man picks up a small gear with a steel hook, shakes it in a vat of oil, then turns it into a basket. The motion never varies. The gears come to him always in exactly the same place, he gives each one the same number of shakes, and he drops it into a basket which is always in the same place. No muscular energy is required, no intelligence is required. He does little more than wave his hands gently to and fro—the steel rod is so light. Yet the man on that job has been doing it for eight solid years … and he stubbornly resists every attempt to force him into a better job! …

The blind man or cripple man can, in the particular place to which he is assigned, perform just as much work and receive exactly the same pay as a wholly able bodied man would … To discover what was the real situation, I had all of the different jobs in the factory classified to the kind of machine and work … It turned out at the time of the inquiry that there were then 7882 different jobs in the factory. Of these, 949 were classified as heavy work requiring strong, able bodied and practically physically perfect men … The lightest jobs were classified to discover how many of them required the use of full faculties and we found that 670 could be filled by legless men, 2637 by one-legged men, 2 by armless men, 715 by one-armed men and 10 by blind men …

The length of time to become proficient in the various occupations is about as follows: 43 per cent of jobs require not over one day of training; 36 per cent require from one day to one week; 6 per cent require from one to two weeks; 14 per cent require from one day to one year; one per cent required from one to six years …

The rank and file of men come to us unskilled; they learn their jobs within a few hours or a few days … These men are, many of them, foreigners, and all that is required before they are taken on is that they should be potentially able to do enough work to pay the overhead charges on the floor space they occupy …

The discipline throughout the plant is rigid … We expect the men to do what they are told. The organisation is so highly specialised and one part is so dependent upon another that we could not for a moment consider allowing the men to have their own way. Without the most rigid discipline we would have the utmost confusion. Anyone who does not like to work in our way may always leave … Because they refused to do the job assigned or, without giving cause, demanded a transfer, 3702 were let go [in the year 1919]; 10,334 were absent more than ten days without notice and therefore dropped.


Ford, Henry. 1923. My Life and Work. Sydney: Angus & Robertson. pp. 103, 103–104, 105–106, 107–108, 110, 79, 111. || Amazon || WorldCat


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