Henry Ford on his plans and his philosophy

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Henry Ford on his plans and his philosophy
Published in the Literary Digest, January 7, 1928


Henry Ford (Literary Digest 1928-01-07 Interview).jpg
 Keystone View photographs
Mr. Ford says that the workers on his assembling line "have more skill, and need to have more skill, than the old-fashioned mechanics ever had."

"I NEVER MADE A MISTAKE IN MY LIFE," said Henry Ford the other day to an interviewer who asked if he hadn't slipt a cog through the long delay over his new car. "Never! And neither did you ever make a mistake—or anybody else." To talk about making mistakes is absurd, according to Mr. Ford. "For what purpose do you suppose you are living on earth?" he demanded of his interviewer. "Do you know what you are here for?" And then he answered his own question: "l'll tell you what every living person is here for, and that is to get experience. That's all we can get out of life."

It is impossible to understand many of the policies of the Ford Motor Company, we are told, unless we realize that Henry Ford is a devout believer in the theory of reincarnation. The interviewer who drew his fire on the subject of mistakes is Charles W. Wood, associate editor of Forbes Magazine, and he has written an article about him for the January number of that periodical, from which we present some interesting passages—Wood asserts that there is a definite relation between the new Ford car and the faith just mentioned. He works it out this way:

Mr. Ford not only believes, but he acts constantly upon who belief, that the Engineer of the Universe has placed each of the two billion or so human beings on this planet on the job of learning by experience the particular things each most needs to learn.

If a man becomes a murderer, it is because he needed the experience. If he lives in poverty and pain, that was the experience of which he stood most in need. After he gets his experiences, he dies. Then he is born again into another life which will give him other experiences of which he stands in need.

Eventually, through the eons, some souls thus learn a good deal which nobody knew a million years ago. That is, nobody but the Engineer of the Universe. Most of us, in fact, have already learned not to murder, except in war, and we may in time, learn not to make war. Only recently did anybody learn how to make wagons run without horses. Mr. Ford was one of the pioneers in this particular field, and it is his aim to get all the experience out of it that he can.

An understanding of this belief is necessary to an understanding of Mr. Ford. Wealth, simply as acquisition, has no meaning to him. Profits, simply as profits, have no meaning. It is only what we learn that counts. If, therefore, we make what we call a mistake, it shows that we needed the experience in order to learn better, which in turn proves that it was no mistake.

Mr. Ford was amused when the interviewer quoted the current criticism to the effect that he had "slipt" when he dropt a hundred millions or more by not having his new plans ready as soon as he quit manufacturing the Model T. His reply, we are told, was characteristic of the man:

"What in the world did they think we wanted of that money?" he asked. "What did they think we put it in the bank for? Did they think we might have spent it for something if we hadn't used it to rebuild our plant, or did they think we wanted to keep it in the banks?

"The only reason whatever for laying up such a surplus is to have it when you need to use it; and no one could use money in such amounts upon himself even if he were fool enough to try. The only right use for money is to capitalize industry. One might give it away, to be sure, but giving doesn't do any good."

"They tell me again," I said, "that you allowed your whole selling organization to become disorganized while the change was going on. Big manufacturers among your competitors boast that they have hired all your best salesmen away from you and that you have left only those they didn't want to hire."

Mr. Ford apparently was not listening. He was drawing a picture on a piece of paper. I was puzzled, as I knew by experience that candor never offends him.

"See here," he said. "Do you know what this picture is?"

It wasn't much of a picture. It was just a big letter U. with some sticks crossed underneath it and the interior blackened somewhat by his pencil. Then he went on to depict another letter U beside it. This time waving lines indicated that the sticks were on fire and something was shooting out of the interior and over the lid. Carefully Mr. Ford marked that something, "Dross."

"That's the big problem," he said, "in any organization—the problem of how to get the dross out. In this diagram here, you see, the dross is all in the kettle, but when you apply enough heat, the dross goes out over the top.

"It isn't the incompetent who destroy an organization. The incompetent never get into a position to destroy it. It is those who have achieved something and want to rest on their achievements who are forever clogging things up. To keep an industry pure, you've got to keep it in perpetual ferment. As for those salesmen, everything that's happened so far suits me. I know some people think that salesmen make cars; we believe that a car, if it's good enough, will make salesmen. If we're wrong, of course, we'll discover it some time. That's the beauty of competition. Competition is mainly competition in discovering the truth."

Remarking that the new Ford car doesn't look anything like the old one, the visitor wondered whether there were to be equally revolutionary changes in the manufacturer's industrial policies, and Mr. Ford said:

"The change isn't revolutionary. It seems strange to me that we could put out such a car without employing one single new basic principle. We have simply done everything better than it was ever done before.

"We didn't start from Model T and attempt to improve that. We started from scratch. We brushed aside all preconceptions and simply asked ourselves the question: What is a car for? And what does a car have to have in order to fulfil its purpose? There were a thousand things, of course, which it had to have, and as we came to each one we asked: How can this part be made in fulfil its purpose better than it has ever been fulfilled before?"

"You were looking for the best car that has ever been made?" I asked.

"More than that," he answered. "We were looking for the best car that could be made. That is why we didn't put out a car months ago."

Ford Motor Company assembly line.jpg
It's not when the works run at top speed that these men grumble, but when they shut down.

"And you feel now," I asked, "that you have embodied in this car the very best that the whole world now knows about motor-car construction?"

"The whole world knows a lot" was his answer."

It was characteristic. For many weeks the new model had seemingly been completed; but in spite of performances which made his associates impatient to begin production, Mr. Ford himself held back.

It was not that any pet scheme of his had not been realized. The job he had set for himself was not to realize some pet scheme, but to make the best car that could be made; and if there was any factor which could still be improved, Henry Ford was all for waiting until the improvement could be incorporated.

Even now, altho the assembling line was in action and a number of cars were being turned out daily, I could not learn the exact date when mass production would begin. For each car built by machinery was now being tested as completely as the "experimental" cars had been; and after each test it was being taken to pieces and examined microscopically for any possible weakness that might develop anywhere.

Was Mr. Ford right in thus delaying production? Only history can tell. But when one understands his attitude toward life, the course appears clearly as the only course which Mr. Ford could take.

Workers were idle during this long delay, the automobile industry was suffering, and the buying power of the country generally was so curtailed that everybody was asking eagerly when Mr. Ford would start mass production again. And the Forbes Magazine writer continues:

To all this Mr. Ford has seemed indifferent, and I asked him to explain his apparent indifference.

"That wasn't the major question," he said. "They only thought it was. The big question was not when would we start production but what kind of production would we start. If we had started to produce something that could be produced better by others, it wouldn't have been done any good. And even if we had produced something better than our competitors, and it still wasn't the best that we could do, we would have found ourselves tumbling after a little—just as soon as they had caught up to us.

"If a car is to serve its purpose", he added, "it must be low-priced—not cheap, but low-priced. If it isn't, you can't sell a lot of them; and if you can't sell a lot of them, you can't manufacture them at lowest cost. In order to set the lowest possible price, you must have the greatest possible production; and in order to assure the the greatest possible production, you must set the lowest possible price. That's what capital is for; to enable you to set a price based not upon your actual first cost of production but upon what it will cost you to produce when you are producing all you can.

"Now, if we're going to produce cars as cheaply as we can, we've got to figure on producing them for more than one season. If we change models every few months, the public must pay for the change or else refuse to pay, which means that we must go out of business. Our job was to invent and produce a car which we could make and sell as cheaply as possible for a good many years to come. We did that with Model T, and we think we have done it again. If we haven't, it can be for only one reason—because somebody else succeeds in doing an even better job. So I can't see that the public has lost anything. The only way the public could lose would be through our not doing the best we could."

"Competition is the great teacher"—that is another of Mr. Ford's mottoes. The man who is in business merely for the dollars, he says, can't learn much from words; but if such a man comes up against a better philosophy in the shape of practical competition, he may learn something. As for Henry Ford himself, we are told, "he must do what he thinks best with his two-billion-dollar tool, not what somebody else thinks best; for in carrying out the orders of the Engineer of the Universe it is quite impossible to pass the buck." And this brings us to the subject of Mr. Ford's personal traits. Says Mr. Wood:

Mr. Ford is often referred to as a man of contradictions. No one is more autocratic, for instance, nor more democratic. He uses his wealth ruthlessly, yet no one is less wealth-conscious. To me he has always seemed one of the most modest of men. He doesn't "condescend" to talk with newspaper men. He either talks with them or he doesn't; if he does, the talk is always on the level, and not as tho his time were too precious to listen to what the other fellow had to say. He won't make appointments for mere conversation. You either find him or you don't. He likes to chat with people, but he keeps himself foot-loose. His time is altogether too precious to have every minute of it scheduled for weeks in advance.

These seeming contradictions are quite understandable if one remembers his fundamental conception of human life. He has no notion that wealth has made him great, and any one who is imprest merely by his wealth bores him. In his personal contacts he likes to dodge the subject. He would prefer to talk with a machinist about machinery, or with somebody who likes birds about birds. In these contacts, he asks no deference; and if he gets it, he suspects it is mere deference to wealth, and that ends his interest.

On the other hand, if you work for him, especially if you are associated with him in the formation of any of his policies, there is abundant testimony that he is a ruthless autocrat, demanding absolute obedience, and is shockingly inconsiderate of the other fellow's feelings. Whether Mr. Ford is aware of this, I never could find out or whether, being aware, he cares.

One kind of criticism makes him angry, as this interviewer inadvertently discovered. Ford denies with heat that his workers are "robots." Thus:

"You think a worker on our assembling line doesn't have to be skilled," he said, rather hotly. "You don't know what you're talking about. I tell you, those fellows out there to-day have more skill, and need to have more skill, than the old-fashioned mechanics ever had."

"But, Mr. Ford," I protested. "I—"

"I don't want to talk with you any more," he said, "until you've learned something. You go out on the line. Go through the Rouge plant. Talk with the men who are organizing the work out there, and find out anything that you can find out. If you come back here then and tell me that the men are becoming automatons, I'll listen to you; but there's no use of talking when we can't understand each other."

Mr. Ford went out to do his disagreeable job and I set out on my strange commission. Obviously I couldn't talk with the 45,000 who were then working at the River Rouge plant, and it was a couple of days before I could get an appointment with Mr. Sorensen, the superintendent.

Charles E. Sorensen is commonly spoken of as Ford's "Man Friday," but he is still an indistinct figure to the world at large. It was the first time that Mr. Wood had met him, we are told, and the result was the discovery of a forceful personality. Mr. Wood has no use for the pet formula of Ford's critics—"It isn't Ford, it's Sorensen"—but he goes on to say:

Work is Sorenson's religion. He, too, is not clubby. If a man doesn't seem to be making good, Sorensen is strangely patient with him, and will go to no end of trouble to find out why. Paradoxically, it is the man who does seem to be making good toward whom he seems impatient. Sorenson has the reputation of driving such people pretty hard.

A salesman who makes a good record is especially in for a riding. The salesman may, in his own mind, be aiming at nothing more than $10,000 a car; and when he reaches that mark, he may wish to rest upon his laurels. But the boss, under this system, can not let anybody rest—that is, anybody who has shown any capacity for development. Especially is this so if, in the course of his promotion, he has come to have many workers under him.

The writer talked with many of Ford's employees, as he had been so warmly admonished to do, and he came away imprest with the fact that such complaints as he heard had nothing whatever to do with the common theory that the machine is making automatons out of the men. Some of them like their jobs, and some don't, he reports, but it is not when the Ford works are going at top speed that they grumble. It is when they shut down, which, we must admit, is not often. Mr. Wood continues:

Men used to working alone naturally find it irksome to work in concert with so many other men, especially if they are getting on in years and have learned their trade in what they call the "good old days" when the standard of living was a small fraction of what it is to-day.

But it is not the speed to which they object. Nor is it the hard labor. As a matter of fact, "speeding up" in the modern factory does not mean what those who read about it think it does. They think it means the double-quick of military tactics, whereas it simply means more coordination of effort. Workers on the big modern machine do not work as fast as corn-huskers or hay-pitchers or wood-choppers used to work. It isn't necessary.

If they did so, moreover, they would be likely to get tired, and modern industry knows that it can not afford to let its workers get too tired.

Certainly there is little lugging and lifting and back-breaking hard work in the modern plant. Heavy things can be lifted and lugged much better by machinery, and they are. The assembling line which I watched seemed more like a modern dance.

"But what will happen," I asked Mr. Ford, referring to the assembly line, "when all our work in America is handed in some such way as this?"

"There will be a lot of work done," he said.

"And a lot of things made," I added. "Is that the only answer?"

"Of course not," he replied. "When work generally is organized like this, we will be able to make the things we want in much less time. The hours of labor will constantly be lessened and the pay will constantly be increased."

"Perhaps to a five-day week pretty soon," I ventured.

"You're getting ahead pretty fast," said Mr. Ford.

The possibilities of such a Utopia did not seem to fascinate him particularly. He could see the logic of it, but he did not care. It is not up to him to bring Utopia to earth. It is up to him to do his job in the Ford Motor Company. If others copy his tactics until the bulk of the world's work is done by scientific modern methods, and we can all work in relays of a few weeks a year, spending the rest of the time in pursuit of culture, Henry Ford will probably have no objections. But that is not his goal. He is concerned rather that the Ford Motor Company shall do with all its might the things which it finds to do. He has no notion that he has reached that goal yet. He can tell only by experience.

That the experience of one generation is passed over to the next does not figure much in Mr. Ford's philosophy. He is not even that much of a socialist. What passes over from one generation to another, as he sees it, is the individual human soul—the soul which has occupied a body, perhaps, in some now-forgotten civilization being assigned by the Great Executive to be born again into present-day America to learn the lessons which work in America may give him. Ford is the world's champion individualist. But, perhaps, its greatest social force.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was legally published within the United States (or the United Nations Headquarters in New York subject to Section 7 of the United States Headquarters Agreement) before 1964, and copyright was not renewed.
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The author died in 1928, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.