Learn about Life in the 1920s

Chapter 6 - Machines and Men

That which one has to fight hardest against in bringing together a large number of people to do work is excess organization and consequent red tape. To my mind there is no bent of mind more dangerous than that which is sometimes described as the "genius for organization." This usually results in the birth of a great big chart showing, after the fashion of a family tree, how authority ramifies. The tree is heavy with nice round berries, each of which bears the name of a man or of an office. Every man has a title and certain duties which are strictly limited by the circumference of his berry.

If a straw boss wants to say something to the general superintendent, his message has to go through the sub-foreman, the foreman, the department head, and all the assistant superintendents, before, in the course of time, it reaches the general superintendent. Probably by that time what he wanted to talk about is already history. It takes about six weeks for the message of a man living in a berry on the lower left-hand corner of the chart to reach the president or chairman of the board, and if it ever does reach one of these august officials, it has by that time gathered to itself about a pound of criticisms, suggestions, and comments. Very few things are ever taken under "official consideration" until long after the time when they actually ought to have been done. The buck is passed to and fro and all responsibility is dodged by individuals--following the lazy notion that two heads are better than one.

Now a business, in my way of thinking, is not a machine. It is a collection of people who are brought together to do work and not to write letters to one another. It is not necessary for any one department to know what any other department is doing. If a man is doing his work he will not have time to take up any other work. It is the business of those who plan the entire work to see that all of the departments are working properly toward the same end. It is not necessary to have meetings to establish good feeling between individuals or departments. It is not necessary for people to love each other in order to work together. Too much good fellowship may indeed be a very bad thing, for it may lead to one man trying to cover up the faults of another. That is bad for both men.

When we are at work we ought to be at work. When we are at play we ought to be at play. There is no use trying to mix the two. The sole object ought to be to get the work done and to get paid for it. When the work is done, then the play can come, but not before. And so the Ford factories and enterprises have no organization, no specific duties attaching to any position, no line of succession or of authority, very few titles, and no conferences. We have only the clerical help that is absolutely required; we have no elaborate records of any kind, and consequently no red tape.

We make the individual responsibility complete. The workman is absolutely responsible for his work. The straw boss is responsible for the workmen under him. The foreman is responsible for his group. The department head is responsible for the department. The general superintendent is responsible for the whole factory. Every man has to know what is going on in his sphere. I say "general superintendent." There is no such formal title. One man is in charge of the factory and has been for years. He has two men with him, who, without in any way having their duties defined, have taken particular sections of the work to themselves. With them are about half a dozen other men in the nature of assistants, but without specific duties. They have all made jobs for themselves--but there are no limits to their jobs. They just work in where they best fit. One man chases stock and shortages. Another has grabbed inspection, and so on.

This may seem haphazard, but it is not. A group of men, wholly intent upon getting work done, have no difficulty in seeing that the work is done. They do not get into trouble about the limits of authority, because they are not thinking of titles. If they had offices and all that, they would shortly be giving up their time to office work and to wondering why did they not have a better office than some other fellow.

Because there are no titles and no limits of authority, there is no question of red tape or going over a man's head. Any workman can go to anybody, and so established has become this custom, that a foreman does not get sore if a workman goes over him and directly to the head of the factory. The workman rarely ever does so, because a foreman knows as well as he knows his own name that if he has been unjust it will be very quickly found out, and he shall no longer be a foreman. One of the things that we will not tolerate is injustice of any kind. The moment a man starts to swell with authority he is discovered, and he goes out, or goes back to a machine. A large amount of labour unrest comes from the unjust exercise of authority by those in subordinate positions, and I am afraid that in far too many manufacturing institutions it is really not possible for a workman to get a square deal.

The work and the work alone controls us. That is one of the reasons why we have no titles. Most men can swing a job, but they are floored by a title. The effect of a title is very peculiar. It has been used too much as a sign of emancipation from work. It is almost equivalent to a badge bearing the legend:

"This man has nothing to do but regard himself as important and all others as inferior."

Not only is a title often injurious to the wearer, but it has its effect on others as well. There is perhaps no greater single source of personal dissatisfaction among men than the fact that the title-bearers are not always the real leaders. Everybody acknowledges a real leader--a man who is fit to plan and command. And when you find a real leader who bears a title, you will have to inquire of someone else what his title is. He doesn't boast about it.

Titles in business have been greatly overdone and business has suffered. One of the bad features is the division of responsibility according to titles, which goes so far as to amount to a removal altogether of responsibility. Where responsibility is broken up into many small bits and divided among many departments, each department under its own titular head, who in turn is surrounded by a group bearing their nice sub-titles, it is difficult to find any one who really feels responsible. Everyone knows what "passing the buck" means. The game must have originated in industrial organizations where the departments simply shove responsibility along. The health of every organization depends on every member--whatever his place--feeling that everything that happens to come to his notice relating to the welfare of the business is his own job. Railroads have gone to the devil under the eyes of departments that say:

"Oh, that doesn't come under our department. Department X, 100 miles away, has that in charge."

There used to be a lot of advice given to officials not to hide behind their titles. The very necessity for the advice showed a condition that needed more than advice to correct it. And the correction is just this--abolish the titles. A few may be legally necessary; a few may be useful in directing the public how to do business with the concern, but for the rest the best rule is simple: "Get rid of them."

As a matter of fact, the record of business in general just now is such as to detract very much from the value of titles. No one would boast of being president of a bankrupt bank. Business on the whole has not been so skillfully steered as to leave much margin for pride in the steersmen. The men who bear titles now and are worth anything are forgetting their titles and are down in the foundation of business looking for the weak spots. They are back again in the places from which they rose--trying to reconstruct from the bottom up. And when a man is really at work, he needs no title. His work honours him.

All of our people come into the factory or the offices through the employment departments. As I have said, we do not hire experts--neither do we hire men on past experiences or for any position other than the lowest. Since we do not take a man on his past history, we do not refuse him because of his past history. I never met a man who was thoroughly bad. There is always some good in him--if he gets a chance. That is the reason we do not care in the least about a man's antecedents--we do not hire a man's history, we hire the man. If he has been in jail, that is no reason to say that he will be in jail again. I think, on the contrary, he is, if given a chance, very likely to make a special effort to keep out of jail. Our employment office does not bar a man for anything he has previously done--he is equally acceptable whether he has been in Sing Sing or at Harvard and we do not even inquire from which place he has graduated. All that he needs is the desire to work. If he does not desire to work, it is very unlikely that he will apply for a position, for it is pretty well understood that a man in the Ford plant works.

We do not, to repeat, care what a man has been. If he has gone to college he ought to be able to go ahead faster, but he has to start at the bottom and prove his ability. Every man's future rests solely with himself. There is far too much loose talk about men being unable to obtain recognition. With us every man is fairly certain to get the exact recognition he deserves.

Of course, there are certain factors in the desire for recognition which must be reckoned with. The whole modern industrial system has warped the desire so out of shape that it is now almost an obsession. There was a time when a man's personal advancement depended entirely and immediately upon his work, and not upon any one's favor; but nowadays it often depends far too much upon the individual's good fortune in catching some influential eye. That is what we have successfully fought against. Men will work with the idea of catching somebody's eye; they will work with the idea that if they fail to get credit for what they have done, they might as well have done it badly or not have done it at all. Thus the work sometimes becomes a secondary consideration. The job in hand--the article in hand, the special kind of service in hand--turns out to be not the principal job. The main work becomes personal advancement--a platform from which to catch somebody's eye. This habit of making the work secondary and the recognition primary is unfair to the work. It makes recognition and credit the real job. And this also has an unfortunate effect on the worker. It encourages a peculiar kind of ambition which is neither lovely nor productive. It produces the kind of man who imagines that by "standing in with the boss" he will get ahead. Every shop knows this kind of man. And the worst of it is there are some things in the present industrial system which make it appear that the game really pays. Foremen are only human. It is natural that they should be flattered by being made to believe that they hold the weal or woe of workmen in their hands. It is natural, also, that being open to flattery, their self-seeking subordinates should flatter them still more to obtain and profit by their favor. That is why I want as little as possible of the personal element.

It is particularly easy for any man who never knows it all to go forward to a higher position with us. Some men will work hard but they do not possess the capacity to think and especially to think quickly. Such men get as far as their ability deserves. A man may, by his industry, deserve advancement, but it cannot be possibly given him unless he also has a certain element of leadership. This is not a dream world we are living in. I think that every man in the shaking-down process of our factory eventually lands about where he belongs.

We are never satisfied with the way that everything is done in any part of the organization; we always think it ought to be done better and that eventually it will be done better. The spirit of crowding forces the man who has the qualities for a higher place eventually to get it. He perhaps would not get the place if at any time the organization--which is a word I do not like to use--became fixed, so that there would be routine steps and dead men's shoes. But we have so few titles that a man who ought to be doing something better than he is doing, very soon gets to doing it--he is not restrained by the fact that there is no position ahead of him "open"--for there are no "positions." We have no cut-and-dried places--our best men make their places. This is easy enough to do, for there is always work, and when you think of getting the work done instead of finding a title to fit a man who wants to be promoted, then there is no difficulty about promotion. The promotion itself is not formal; the man simply finds himself doing something other than what he was doing and getting more money.

All of our people have thus come up from the bottom. The head of the factory started as a machinist. The man in charge of the big River Rouge plant began as a patternmaker. Another man overseeing one of the principal departments started as a sweeper. There is not a single man anywhere in the factory who did not simply come in off the street. Everything that we have developed has been done by men who have qualified themselves with us. We fortunately did not inherit any traditions and we are not founding any. If we have a tradition it is this:

Everything can always be done better than it is being done.

That pressing always to do work better and faster solves nearly every factory problem. A department gets its standing on its rate of production. The rate of production and the cost of production are distinct elements. The foremen and superintendents would only be wasting time were they to keep a check on the costs in their departments. There are certain costs--such as the rate of wages, the overhead, the price of materials, and the like, which they could not in any way control, so they do not bother about them. What they can control is the rate of production in their own departments. The rating of a department is gained by dividing the number of parts produced by the number of hands working. Every foreman checks his own department daily--he carries the figures always with him. The superintendent has a tabulation of all the scores; if there is something wrong in a department the output score shows it at once, the superintendent makes inquiries and the foreman looks alive. A considerable part of the incentive to better methods is directly traceable to this simple rule-of-thumb method of rating production. The foreman need not be a cost accountant--he is no better a foreman for being one. His charges are the machines and the human beings in his department. When they are working at their best he has performed his service. The rate of his production is his guide. There is no reason for him to scatter his energies over collateral subjects.

This rating system simply forces a foreman to forget personalities--to forget everything other than the work in hand. If he should select the people he likes instead of the people who can best do the work, his department record will quickly show up that fact.

There is no difficulty in picking out men. They pick themselves out because--although one hears a great deal about the lack of opportunity for advancement--the average workman is more interested in a steady job than he is in advancement. Scarcely more than five per cent, of those who work for wages, while they have the desire to receive more money, have also the willingness to accept the additional responsibility and the additional work which goes with the higher places. Only about twenty-five per cent. are even willing to be straw bosses, and most of them take that position because it carries with it more pay than working on a machine. Men of a more mechanical turn of mind, but with no desire for responsibility, go into the tool-making departments where they receive considerably more pay than in production proper. But the vast majority of men want to stay put. They want to be led. They want to have everything done for them and to have no responsibility. Therefore, in spite of the great mass of men, the difficulty is not to discover men to advance, but men who are willing to be advanced.

The accepted theory is that all people are anxious for advancement, and a great many pretty plans have been built up from that. I can only say that we do not find that to be the case. The Americans in our employ do want to go ahead, but they by no means do always want to go clear through to the top. The foreigners, generally speaking, are content to stay as straw bosses. Why all of this is, I do not know. I am giving the facts.

As I have said, everyone in the place reserves an open mind as to the way in which every job is being done. If there is any fixed theory--any fixed rule--it is that no job is being done well enough. The whole factory management is always open to suggestion, and we have an informal suggestion system by which any workman can communicate any idea that comes to him and get action on it.

The saving of a cent per piece may be distinctly worth while. A saving of one cent on a part at our present rate of production represents twelve thousand dollars a year. One cent saved on each part would amount to millions a year. Therefore, in comparing savings, the calculations are carried out to the thousandth part of a cent. If the new way suggested shows a saving and the cost of making the change will pay for itself within a reasonable time--say within three months--the change is made practically as of course. These changes are by no means limited to improvements which will increase production or decrease cost. A great many--perhaps most of them--are in the line of making the work easier. We do not want any hard, man-killing work about the place, and there is now very little of it. And usually it so works out that adopting the way which is easier on the men also decreases the cost. There is most intimate connection between decency and good business. We also investigate down to the last decimal whether it is cheaper to make or to buy a part.

The suggestions come from everywhere. The Polish workmen seem to be the cleverest of all of the foreigners in making them. One, who could not speak English, indicated that if the tool in his machine were set at a different angle it might wear longer. As it was it lasted only four or five cuts. He was right, and a lot of money was saved in grinding. Another Pole, running a drill press, rigged up a little fixture to save handling the part after drilling. That was adopted generally and a considerable saving resulted. The men often try out little attachments of their own because, concentrating on one thing, they can, if they have a mind that way, usually devise some improvement. The cleanliness of a man's machine also--although cleaning a machine is no part of his duty--is usually an indication of his intelligence.

Here are some of the suggestions: A proposal that castings be taken from the foundry to the machine shop on an overhead conveyor saved seventy men in the transport division. There used to be seventeen men--and this was when production was smaller--taking the burrs off gears, and it was a hard, nasty job. A man roughly sketched a special machine. His idea was worked out and the machine built. Now four men have several times the output of the seventeen men--and have no hard work at all to do. Changing from a solid to a welded rod in one part of the chassis effected an immediate saving of about one half million a year on a smaller than the present-day production. Making certain tubes out of flat sheets instead of drawing them in the usual way effected another enormous saving.

The old method of making a certain gear comprised four operations and 12 per cent. of the steel went into scrap. We use most of our scrap and eventually we will use it all, but that is no reason for not cutting down on scrap--the mere fact that all waste is not a dead loss is no excuse for permitting waste. One of the workmen devised a very simple new method for making this gear in which the scrap was only one per cent. Again, the camshaft has to have heat treatment in order to make the surface hard; the cam shafts always came out of the heat-treat oven somewhat warped, and even back in 1918, we employed 37 men just to straighten the shafts. Several of our men experimented for about a year and finally worked out a new form of oven in which the shafts could not warp. In 1921, with the production much larger than in 1918, we employed only eight men in the whole operation.

And then there is the pressing to take away the necessity for skill in any job done by any one. The old-time tool hardener was an expert. He had to judge the heating temperatures. It was a hit-or-miss operation. The wonder is that he hit so often. The heat treatment in the hardening of steel is highly important--providing one knows exactly the right heat to apply. That cannot be known by rule-of-thumb. It has to be measured. We introduced a system by which the man at the furnace has nothing at all to do with the heat. He does not see the pyrometer--the instrument which registers the temperature. Coloured electric lights give him his signals.

None of our machines is ever built haphazardly. The idea is investigated in detail before a move is made. Sometimes wooden models are constructed or again the parts are drawn to full size on a blackboard. We are not bound by precedent but we leave nothing to luck, and we have yet to build a machine that will not do the work for which it was designed. About ninety per cent. of all experiments have been successful.

Whatever expertness in fabrication that has developed has been due to men. I think that if men are unhampered and they know that they are serving, they will always put all of mind and will into even the most trivial of tasks.

Chapter 7 - The Terror of the Machine >>>