Many principles of lean manufacturing trace their roots to the man from Dearborn.

Once in a great while, an industry makes a giant leap. In the rearview mirror of history, such leaps seem a combination of both genius and common sense. At the moment, however, a leap into the unknown looks more like the act of a madman. Business history is filled with many examples of this dichotomy, ranging from James Watt and the steam engine to Ted Turner, CNN and cable TV.

Perhaps the single most dramatic industry-changing moment in modern times was Henry Ford's revolutionary Model T and the moving assembly line. In fact, Fortune magazine named Ford one of its four "businessmen of the century" for those innovations. According to the Nov. 22, 1999, article, "When he founded Ford Motor Co., cars were fussy, unreliable and costly novelties. Ford's genius was to make them simple, solid and inexpensive necessities."

In retrospect, Ford's developments seem like natural next steps in the evolution of American business. Perhaps he was just first to complete a journey whose course was laid down by impersonal forces of history. Nevertheless, Ford made a major contribution to what we know today as lean manufacturing.

More than Just a Leap

If people told you they were going to change every aspect of their business and industry, you would probably think they were crazy. A century ago, people thought Ford was crazy. For instance, consider the following nugget of personal history.

In the early 1900s, Ford canvassed northern Indiana looking for investors in a risky new business: an automobile manufacturing company. Stopping briefly in Angola, IN, Ford approached the paternal grandfather of one of the authors of this article. The young Hoosier was interested in what Ford had to say, but was uncertain as to what to do. He consulted his father, who sagely counseled, "Son, put your money in land."

Let's dispel any notion that Ford's accomplishments were just the natural next steps for the automotive industry. Real estate was the future, not the new-fangled automobile. What Ford did was something more than anyone expected or could have believed was possible. A next step is usually that—a step. Henry Ford did not just create a system for mass production. He changed radically and forever dozens of aspects of business, and all within 20 years—a very short period of time.

Ford did not just borrow innovations already in place in other industries or his own (what we refer to today as benchmarking). He made changes that would thrust many industries forward, as if by a tidal wave. For example, Ford turned Midwestern farmers into assembly workers. Industrialists had tapped the farming community for labor before, but did not feel compelled to transform farmers into a skilled, coordinated workforce. Ford did, and it was no mean feat.

It is still a challenge today to find and develop people who can adapt to the unique jobs found on an automotive assembly line—a combination of brutal repetition, constant pace and precision work at speed. Today, we have tools that make the job easier, such as automated alignment equipment, robotic fixtures and lightweight electric nutrunners.

Ford's transformation, a combination in today's terms of "innovative incentive structures" of paying workers $5 a day and "workforce development," gave him a workforce that without his vision would have come to a grinding halt. Outside of the established apprenticeship programs, virtually no companies had invested as much in building a capable and motivated workforce.

Another example that illustrates Henry Ford's vision is factory design. At the turn of the last century, most factories were still built on the model that power is distributed through a combination of wheels, pulleys and gravity. While many adopted the electric dynamo, allowing single-storied factories, few had Ford's vision to rearrange factory layouts to facilitate more efficient movement of people and materials.

Ford's reinvention of manufacturing did not involve just one step forward, but several steps—all at once, all in the pursuit of a coherent vision: the smooth flow of value-adding work in service of the customer.

Before Ford and his colleagues came along, cars were mostly built top to bottom by the same person or a small group of people. The next logical step in the evolution of the manufacturing process would have been to split up the content of the work, say into body and chassis, to be completed by two specialized teams. Then split it again into components. Then add the element of time: measure the time it takes to complete each element of work, ensuring that work moved from step to step at a standard pace. When you've reached that point, then and only then should you begin to consider a moving assembly line.

Henry Ford and his colleagues, such as production manager Charles Sorensen, moved in precisely these steps, but only as experiments to test his grand theory, steps along this journey to continuous flow, steps toward his vision of America on wheels. Many industries have found themselves stuck somewhere in between for decades and many are still stuck.

Creative Tension

Imagine a giant rubber band holding together two things—the vision of an ideal state and a clear view of current reality. Great accomplishments in human affairs occur when that tension is greatest. An impossible vision stands the best chance when pursued with an intense curiosity and mind open to current reality.

One counterpart without the other is useless. A vision that lacks understanding of current reality lacks the ability to accomplish anything. A view of current reality that lacks vision leads to frustration and cynicism. Both vision and realism are needed to accomplish great things.

Henry Ford was both a visionary and a realist, and an excellent example of strong creative tension. In most organizations, when the tension on that rubber band is too much, we do one of two things: We either lower our vision or we overestimate current reality. Ford's vision made him famous. He believed there could be a car in front of every house; and he saw what had to happen to get there.

Ford's vision had several distinguishing characteristics that are important for those who wish to develop their own creative tension. First, the customer was in the driver's seat. It is true that Ford said let the customer have "any color he wants as long as it's black." His vision wasn't perfect; but it surpassed everything else based on price, reliability, availability and use.

General Motors, of course, built on this vision and took over first place in market share by adding variety. But, it was Henry Ford who saw a future much different and much better than his current day. The title of Ford's popular 1926 book, Today and Tomorrow, reflects this.

The second distinguishing characteristic of Ford's vision was that it was multidimensional. Henry Ford looked at every aspect of his business to achieve his grand vision: product, process and people. His product vision was based on interchangeable parts that fit together every time and a product that didn't break down as you used it; a product so cheap to build that everyone could afford it.

Ford and Sorensen also created what we today call modular assembly—the process of putting together subassemblies before installing them on a vehicle. Modularity at that point was nothing more than putting hoses and attachments on the radiator before installation, but this simple innovation was another step toward Ford's ultimate goal.

Ford's process vision was based on the continuous and waste-free flow of material all the way from the iron ore mine to the customer. His people vision was based on a capable, trained and motivated workforce that worked in a coordinated way and was also able to afford the products that the factory made. Any one piece of that vision was incomplete; together they were dynamite.

Ford's vision changed the landscape of industry. At the turn of the century, there were many small producers of automobiles all over the Midwest and Northeast. In Pennsylvania, for example, the town of York had established itself as a major player in the industry. Fourteen different car companies were hard at work—including one employing the great uncle of the other author, who went on to design and build a few trucks of his own (including perhaps one of the first with four-wheel hydraulic brakes).

One of York's more successful automakers was the Pullman Co. Pullman's motto was "Some cars cost more to buy; but no car costs more to build." This stands in striking distinction to Ford's vision of a low-cost, low-price, high-quality car. Henry Ford's vision took the industry in such a new direction that the automobile industry could not survive in York, PA, or in Auburn, IN, or anywhere else where people couldn't see the world the way Ford saw it.

Ironically, Ford's vision was not about money. Of course, he did not invest his wealth with no concern for getting it back. To Ford, profit was the by-product of the vision, not the fuel. Asking, "how can I make money fulfilling my vision?" is a very different question from "what vision will make me a lot of money?" The desire for profit alone never yields the sustaining greatness that Ford clearly attained. No; Ford wanted to change the world in a very particular way.

Henry Ford's search for a clear understanding of current reality is perhaps most clearly exhibited by his own research. Ford Motor Co. had many of its own laboratories. So did Henry Ford himself, who spent his free time with others who sought insight, such as Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, who all studied together in winter laboratories in Fort Myers, FL.

Henry Ford's search for understanding was not just in science and industry, but took the same experimental approach when it came to business and people. He never assumed he had the answer. He did assume there was an answer and went in relentless search of it. A crystal-clear vision of what he could create combined with the endless curiosity of current reality created tension that allowed constant and multifaceted change, and a leap into the future.

Rediscovering Lean History

Ford's leap was so great that it was ahead of its time. So far ahead that, despite widespread adoption of a few of his ideas—most prominently the continuous assembly line—knowledge of many of Ford's contributions to manufacturing were actually lost—at least to American and European manufacturers. This seems impossible to believe, but it is true.

Norman Bodek, founder of Productivity Press (New York), rescued Henry Ford's vision from oblivion during a trip to Japan. Bodek frequently toured Japan during the 1980s to seek out new ideas. He published the books of Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo in English helping to bring lean to North America.

On one trip to Toyota Motor Co. (Tokyo), Bodek noticed a book that frequently appeared on desks throughout Toyota City. "What is this?" he asked. "Henry Ford's Today and Tomorrow," was the answer. When Bodek returned to the United States, he promptly sought to acquire the title. Bodek was stunned to learn that the book had fallen out of print, a situation he quickly rectified.

Ohno makes it perfectly clear in his book, Toyota Production System, that the ideas contained in Today and Tomorrow—ideas that Ford actualized first at his Highland Park and River Rouge plants—are the foundation stones of the Toyota Production System.

There has never been a question that Henry Ford has made more contributions to the American automotive industry than any other single man or woman before or since. But, few have learned from the contributions of Ford so that the industry, and others, can continue to move forward.

Ford's vision was inherently linked to lean principles, such as the systematic elimination of waste. His experimentation and search for knowledge was relentless, even after he left many competitors trailing behind in his dust.

We are further forward today because others, such as Toyota's Taiichi Ohno, took Ford's accomplishments and built on them, moving forward toward the vision. It's a vision we have not yet reached; a vision where smooth and continuous work flow, waste-free operations and customer-satisfying products are the norm.

Vision alone is just a dream. Vision combined with a constant search for understanding and clarity creates tension. The result is progress. As the heirs to Henry Ford's extraordinary vision of progress, our job is to learn from the past and work toward the future. If that happens, perhaps people will be writing about our own generation's manufacturing visionaries 100 years from now.