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Book Value: Jim Womack on Ford Methods and Ford Shops

by James P. Womack
July 9, 2013

Book Value: Jim Womack on Ford Methods and Ford Shops

by James P. Womack
July 9, 2013 | Comments (6)

My family and I bought a house in 1991 just after The Machine That Changed the World was published. As we were moving in, the previous owner, knowing a bit about what I did, asked if I would be interested in an odd book he had recently found in a flea market. It was Ford Methods and the Ford Shops, a First Edition printed in 1915.

I had heard about this book (some of it is cited in David Hounshell’s wonderful study, From the American System to Mass Production, and we had used the material second-hand in Machine.) But I had never actually seen the book and I had somehow imagined that it was the book version of extinct.

I accepted the book, of course. And once I found a spare moment, I opened Ford Methods and entered a whole new world. I had thought that there were two acts in the lean drama – mass production as exemplified by General Motors (incorporating Ford’s production methods at the massive Rouge complex into a modern management system) and lean production as pioneered by Toyota. But I quickly learned that Henry Ford had been the first systematic lean thinker, pioneering what he called “flow production”, and that much of what Toyota had done was built directly on Henry’s shoulders, by-passing GM and mass production. I also learned that much of what Ford had pioneered had been lost in the move to the Rouge complex, which was the only Ford production system I had known.

I recently revisited Ford Methods and the Ford Shops since this past spring was the 100th anniversary of an amazing moment of innovation when Ford and his colleagues brought together all of the elements of a pro-typical lean production system. We all know about the powered, moving assembly line but this step actually came last, in the spring of 1914. It was the culmination of a series of innovations after the introduction of the Model T in 1908, including consistently interchangeable parts (made possible by the Ford gauging system with go/no-go gauges for every part, which were shared with every supplier), standardized work to a precisely repeatable cycle time, line-side supply of materials in small amounts frequently, cells for component fabrication with machines placed in process sequence and little or no WIP between steps, and a crude pull system for materials flow to regulate production in the upstream processes.

The leap from the previous world of stationary assembly with fitting (filing) of parts to the correct dimensions, treasure hunting for materials and tools, and extensive rework at the end of the process was remarkable. In final assembly at the Highland Park, Michigan, plant (where these leaps were made) Ford achieved a 900% jump in labor productivity between 1913 and 1915. The leaps were not so large in all of the component areas (only 300 to 400%!), but the sum of the innovations was to reduce the cost of what was then one of the world’s most sophisticated manufactured products (the Model T) to a level that a wide spectrum of the population could afford. Thus the modern consumer economy was born.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Ford Methods and the Ford Shops is the extraordinary level of detail Ford allowed authors Horace Arnold and Fay Faurote to describe: The entire bill of material of the Ford car, the sequence of steps involved in producing every component, every piece of documentation used to manage Highland Park, the layout of every building with the location of every machine. This was the first example in the Lean Community of fully sharing experimental findings and I only wish we would be as transparent today.

If you have a spare moment for a trip to a different world—one that will spur your thinking about your own challenges today—you can find copies of a reprinted version of Ford Methods on Amazon and other sites. However, if you want to gain the full effect with vastly better photographs, you should go to Bibliofind or some other out-of-print site to get the First Edition. If you do, perhaps I will run into you wandering the now empty halls of Highland Park.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  books,  flow,  history
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
Matthew Spielman July 11, 2013

There is also a copy of the 1915 version available online, through Google Books.  (from Stanford's library)

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John Podlasek July 13, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Finally LEI is looking into the real Ford and his remarkable accomplishments.  Toyota pales in comparison to what Ford was doing and what he was able to achieve.  If we could apply today's technology to Ford's methods then we would have a true lean revolution upon us.

Thanks Jim.

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Fred Stahl July 13, 2013
5 People AGREE with this comment

Dr. Womack’s note credits Henry Ford with several manufacturing innovations, among them precision fabrication of parts to achieve consistent interchangeability in assembly, a capability essential to mass production.

I read history differently. As I understand it, the innovation of mass production came a century before Ford’s engineers started up the first moving assembly line in 1913. In the first decade of the 19th century a brilliant Connecticut Yankee clockmaker name Eli Terry had a revolutionary idea. He separated fabrication from assembly.  Then he built special machines to make precision interchangeable parts. Assembly no longer needed time-consuming file-to-fit by skilled craftsmen. In his craft shop, Terry had been making one wooden clock a month. In his mass production factory, he and two assistants were making thousands. Prices of his clocks dropped from roughly $50 each to $5. By mid-century, clock makers in the Connecticut River Valley were making hundreds of thousands of wooden and brass clocks using Terry’s methods.

Roswell Lee, superintendent of the federal armory at Springfield, pioneered the design of production to manufacture firearms with interchangeable parts. Under Lee, industrial discipline replaced independent craftsmen. Specialized machines lined up in production sequences replaced gunsmiths at workbenches. Comprehensive systems of gauging supported precision fabrication of parts. By the 1840s, the Springfield Armory achieved series production of firearms with user-interchangeable parts. Soon other armories in the Connecticut River Valley were mass-producing guns using the methods developed at the Springfield Armory.

Manufacturing experts from the great Yankee gun factories spread the armory system to other industries. On the eve of the American Civil War, the American Watch Company at Waltham, Massachusetts, for example, was producing 70,000 watches a year. Armory practice became world famous for its unmatched efficiency and quality. After the Civil War, private armories in New England were selling millions of rifles to customers around the world.

A hundred years after Eli Terry started up his mass production factory, a New England Yankee applied know-how from the armory system to rescue Henry Ford from stubbornly stagnated production. Ford’s small factory on Piquette Avenue in Detroit was producing the Model N. Output was stuck at 2,500 cars a year, principally due to parts problems. In 1906, Ford hired Walter Flanders, a machining expert from Vermont, who promised 10,000 cars a year. Flanders scrapped Ford’s machine tools and replaced them with the best in the world. Each machine was set up for one manufacturing step. Then he lined up the machines in what he called “straight-line production.” He showed Ford’s engineers and machinists how to use the gauging methods from New England armories to achieve the fine tolerances required for interchangeability. In its first year of operations, the new factory produced 10,000 cars. Productivity in terms of cars per worker per year increased by a factor of five.

Coincidently, while Flanders was fixing Ford, another Yankee manufacturing expert was converting a factory in Japan to the armory system of manufacturing. Early in the 20th century, Sakiichi Toyoda, the patriarch of the Toyoda family, started up production of his newly invented iron loom in a craft factory. It was a commercial failure because customers didn’t like waiting for replacement parts to be hand crafted back at the factory. In 1907, Sakiichi hired Charles A. Francis to convert his fabrication shops to the manufacture of interchangeable parts. Francis knew precision mass production from working as an engineer at the machine tool works in Hartford established by Francis Pratt and Amos Whitney to supply the gun factories. Sakiichi’s iron looms became a business success. His company started paying dividends in 1910, and he became an industrial legend in Japan.

Sakiichi’s son, Kiichiro, began building cars in a backroom of the loom works, an operation spun off in 1937 to form the Toyota Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

The story of production efficiency is extraordinarily complex. The foregoing displays just a few snapshots of a far bigger tapestry. They suggest, nevertheless, that Henry Ford, brilliant though he was, often gets too much credit for advances in manufacturing and in the organization and management of production work. Perhaps credit for advances such as mass production, practical interchangeability of parts, systems of gauges in production, industrialization of craftwork, machines in process sequence, and consequent revolutionary reductions in prices of engineered consumer goods, rightly belongs to other industrial pioneers.

Fred Stahl

An account of the organization and management of production work, from two million years ago to today, may be found in Worker Leadership: America’s Secret Weapon in the Battle for Industrial Competitiveness, to be published by The MIT Press in September 2013.

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Victor August 13, 2013
While what you say is so true, I believe Ford gets the credit due to the sheer volume and size of his product.
   If cavemen could write I believe they had a system as well!!!
 it's all a learning curve, we just have to see it and apply it.

Have a great LEAN day!


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Danielle McGuiness July 16, 2013
4 People AGREE with this comment
To Jim's comments on Ford's transparency in the feature of Ford Methods and the Ford Shops it greatly reminds me of Toyota. With the Toyota Production System being openly aired, they have been confident in showing the physical plant and tools as these will not automatically give you the TPS knowhow.

As you and I both know, a lean implementation is more than just emulating what someone sees upon walking into a plant, but more about the management structure in which supports the continuous improvement and thinking in the organization.

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Paul Rentz March 08, 2016
1 Person AGREES with this comment

If you really want to see the photographs included in Arnold & Faurote's book, "Ford Methods and Ford Shops" you need to visit the Benson Ford Research Library at the Ford Museum and look at the original prints- the photographers were Spooner and Wells. Those two were hired to document what the authors wrote about. It's an amazing collection. My grandfather was Edward Gray's draftsman, the man behind the genius of the Highland Park power plants, the 'Gas Steam' engines that made the layout of the plant possible, feeding electricity throughout the plant. Under the pen name of Hugh Dolnar, Arnold began his work in 1913. The second of the power plant engines fascinated him- the regenerative use of the heat from the gas engine to drive the steam section of that 5000hp engine, according to what was known at the time, was unique. Mr. Gray’s skills at power plant design is what lead Henry Ford to hire him away from Riverside Engine Company in Oil City, PA as his Chief Engineer. Gray was also responsible for the layout of the plant, with Albert Kahn credited with building ‘the shell’ over that layout. I only wish my grandfather had lived long enough for me to hear his stories, he died in 1945, having returned to Detroit to work for Gray again on Gray’s last project, a ‘steam diesel’ train engine that was Gray’s last project before his death in 1939. My grandfather continued working in the private office Gray had built on his ‘Grayhaven’ property, for Gar Wood, who lived in his mansion at the other end of Grayhaven, until his death. Two amazing men grandpa worked for. As a result, I do have one original photo of the WXYZ building craneway, as it became known. When I first discovered it I had no idea where that photo was taken and not until I posted it and asked for help did I find out that it was part of Highland Park Plant and most likely taken in 1914-15 as the balconies were not enclosed yet.

What a great fine to get that original copy! You would thoroughly enjoy a visit to the Benson Ford Research Center. Request time to visit the Spooner and Wells collection!

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