Article in January 1, 1928 Forbes
Ford Makes Amazing Revelations
By Charles W. Wood
THE question "Can Henry Ford Come Back?" never had much meaning to Mr. Ford. He is not aware that he has been away. He has just been busy, that's all, busy getting out a new car; and if the world has stopped its work somewhat to speculate on how he was getting on, that is strictly the world's business, not his.
"They tell me you've slipped," was my opening remark, when I met him the other day. It wasn't a particularly suave beginning; but I did not know whether he had a minute or an afternoon to give me, and I was anxious to discover how much, if any, he had been affected by the recent winds of criticism that had blown about him.
"Slipped? How?" he asked. I thought for a second that I detected real concern. This seemed strange to me, for the Henry Ford whom I had known was never sensitive to criticism of his business policies. That is, to criticism from the outside.
"They tell me," I explained, "that you have lost one hundred million dollars, and possibly two hundred mil-lion, because of your failure to have the new model ready as soon as you quit manufacturing Model T."
Henry Ford's face relaxed & showed in a broad grin. He was plainly amused.
"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 it away 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?â€
It wasn't much of a picture. It was just a big letter U, with some sticks Tossed 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 some-thing, "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 for-ever 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 sometime. That's the beauty of competition. Competition is mainly competition in discovering the truth."
"But don't you feel that you have made some mistakes?" I asked Mr. Ford. "Never," he answered. "I never made a mistake in my life. Neither did you. Neither did any-body else."
"What are you here for anyway?" he added. "For what purpose do you suppose you are living on earth? Answer that question and you will see how absurd it is to talk of making mistakes. Do you know what you're here for?'
It is impossible to understand many of the policies of the Ford Motor Company without understanding Henry Ford's deep, underlying convictions as to the meaning and purpose of human life.
He is an individualist. Although one of the greatest social forces in modem history, he is, I think, the most consistent individualist I have ever known. I happen to be an extremist in the opposite direction. I have even written a book, "The Myth of the Individual."
Ford Sees All Life
As An Experience
"Iâ€™ll tell you what you're here for," said Mr. Ford, "and what every living person is here for; and that is to get experience. That's all we can get out of life."
It is commonly known that Mr. Ford is a devout believer in the theory of re-incarnation. But no one, so far as I know, has ever called attention to the relation of this belief to the policies of the Ford Motor Company.
There is a definite relation. He not only believes but he acts constantly upon the 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 which 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 experience, 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 dial 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 the experience that he can.
Henry Ford's Creed
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.
This explodes the two most current theories concerning Mr. Ford; one, that he is a super-philanthropist and social philosopher aiming above everything to put an end to human suffering, and the other that he is a ruthless industrial tyrant with no regard for anything except the financial success of the Ford Motor Company. What he is aiming at above everything is to do his work, whether it is agreeable or disagreeable,
The agreeable things, I know, have given him a lot of satisfaction. It was positive fun, for instance, for him to introduce that supposedly impossible $6 minimum wage. But he didn't do it for fun. He did it because he was convinced that that was the best way to run a motor car business. He expects to have some more fun soon, proving that that five-day-week proposal is good business too. But life is serious with Henry Ford and he does not live for the fun of it. He lives to get experience; and if you confine yourself to the things you like to do, he told me, you won't get much experience and you won't grow.
Jobs He Dreads
He Tries to Do First
"I've got a job to do right now that Tim dreading," he said. "It is so disagreeable that I must get at it at once." He wouldn't tell me what it was, which left me surmising that he might be planning to poke the fire again and boil out some more "dross."
I was alarmed. I had not yet got my interview. We had been talking for sometime, but most of the talk had had to do with why we happen to be living, and there were many more concrete subjects which I wanted to introduce.
"I won't ask you about the car," I said, "for that will be speaking for itself by, the time this interview gets into print. But it surely doesn't look anything like the old Ford, and the change has been so revolutionary that I am wondering if you are planning any equally revolutionary changes in your labor and industrial policies."
New Car Embodies
All Basic Principles
"The change isn't revolutionary," he said. "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 dues a car have to have in order to fulfill 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 to fulfill its purpose better than it has ever been fulfilled be-fore?"
"You were looking fur 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."
"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, although 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 any-where.
Was Mr. Ford right in thus delaying production? Only history can tell. But when one understands Mr. Ford's attitude toward life, the course appears clearly as the only course which Mr. Ford could take.
Whole Industries Waited on Ford
In the meantime, thousands of automobile workers were idle. In the meantime, the whole automobile industry was suffering, because mil-lions seemingly were waiting to see what Ford would do. And in the meantime, associated industries were so affected and the buying power of the public generally was so curtailed that one problem in most business and financial forecasts throughout the country was the question of when Ford would start production again.
To all this Mr. Ford has seemed indifferent, and I asked him to ex-plain 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 some-thing that could be produced better by others, it wouldn't have 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 littleâ€”just as soon as they had caught up to us.
"If a car is to serve its purpose," he added, "it must be low-pricedâ€”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 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 some-body 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."
Mr. Ford did not say "We hope." He said "We think." Although not one car had been put upon the market, Henry Ford seemed practically indifferent now as to what the public would do. All his anxiety had gone into the making of the car. If it suited the public as he expected it to suit, well and good. If it did not, he would have had the experience anyway and "all you can get out of life is experience."
Two Billion Souls and Two Billion $s
"But what's the use of explaining all this?" he said. "The man who is in business simply for the profits he can make won't understand it simply by having it explained in words. He'll understand it in time, perhaps, after he has had enough experience; and if he doesn't, he'll give way to somebody who has learned some-thing.
"We can't learn much from words, however. Competition is the great teacher."
The problem, then, of how the two billion souls on earth shall get along does not weigh heavily on the mind of Henry Ford; but the problem of how to conduct the two-billion-dollar Ford Motor Company does. That is his responsibility in the particular life which he is living now. The two billion is simply a tool to work with, and it is up to him to find out how two billion dollars works. He must do with it what he thinks best, 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.
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 though 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 creeks 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 impressed 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.
Ford Hotly Denies Workers Are Robots
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. For mere "clubbiness," I know, he has no use. For the good fellow who congregates with other good fellows and sings "Hail Hail! the gang's all here," he has nothing but scorn. They may treat each other royally, but the fact remains that the gang is not all there. Individualist though lie is, Henry Ford always remembers that the purpose of industry is not to make money but to provide the public with something which the public wants.
"And if you are going to do that job right," he told me, "you can't leave anybody out."
It isn't, however, that he feels the responsibility for their suffering. The responsibility which he feels is that of doing his job right. That he is irritated to some ex-tent by a certain kind of criticism, I had occasion to learn. Criticisms of his business policies amuse him. But the intimation that the Ford factories turn the workers into mere automatons gets on his nerves. Some chance remark of mine made him suspect that I shared this prevalent impression.
"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, I protested. "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. For seven years I have heard him praised, an, blamed, for nearly all the Ford policies, but this was the first time that I had ever met him. On my first (visits to Detroit, some years ago other people were usually given credit. for Ford's success.
"It isn't Ford, its Couzens," the said at first. And later, "it isnâ€™t Ford, it's Klingensmith.' After that, there came other names. But as one after another of these geniuses disappeared from the scene an Ford's success became more phenomenal than ever, those who have stuck to the formula have usual been limited to "It isn't Ford, it Sorensen."
Naturally, I discount the formula. But it is remarkable, when or comes to think of it, that such a man as Sorensen could be cutting such a figure in American life and yet remain so indistinct a personality.
A word from him and a new steel mill is erected. Another word and to thousand new jobs are created and the destiny of ten thousand American families affected. A few years ago, this man was a pattern maker with almost no schooling. He had to struggle even for a chance to learn a trade. He had no philosophies an no understanding of why he was struggling so, but he pushed himself through a world which he did not comprehend until, by accident,
came in contact with Henry Ford.
No Stopping Place for Modern Industry
Since then, he has had no trouble in finding his way. To find Fordâ€™s way became his goal, and he has applied almost superhuman energy to
the task. To-day he looks like half-back at the height of the season. If he has ever been tired, no one has heard about it. And if anyone in his domain reaches a point where he is more interested in other, things than in work Sorensen is all for giving him a permanent vacation.
Work is Sorensen's religion. He too, is not clubby. If a man doesnâ€™t seem to be making good, Sorensen strangely patient with him and well go to no end of trouble to find of why. Paradoxically, it is the man who does seem to be making good toward whom he seems impatient. Sorensen has the reputation of drilling such people pretty hard.
There's a reason. I don't pretend to have solved the riddle of Sorensen in a few hours of acquaintance, but I caught on to one of his basic principles. Modem industry has no stopping-place. An individual may have a stopping-place, but industry must go on faster and faster. Since industry is driven by men, however, it is up to the executive to release all the power he can find in everybody.
If a man's ambition can not be whetted, it isn't necessary to throw him on the scrap-heap. He can hold a job in the ranks, where all he will have to do is to keep up with the crowd and in an industry as large as Ford's one can find a place which even cripples and otherwise handicapped persons can fill. But if a man does develop ambition, it is up to the executive to ride this ambition to its utmost possible limit.
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 year; and when he reaches that mark, he may wish to rest upon his laurels. But the boss, under this system, can not let anybody restâ€”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. A man at a machine, who does not care to rise any higher, may be permitted to stay at that machine; but if a man with men under him is content with his present record, he simply clogs the organization.
Too Many Content to Hold Old Jobs
Ford is not contented. Sorensen is not contented. And the more I looked at the works, the more I was impressed that the management was putting a premium upon discontent.
I said as much later to Mr. Ford. He would not commit himself at first, in words, but he laughed.
"The first big wallop you gave the world," I said, "was when you threw away the old theory that labor like other commodities, must be bought in the cheapest market and set about to make wages as high as you could make them. Then you followed that up by demonstrating that a short work-day is more profitable than a long one, and you finally got around to the five-day week. These steps have been revolutionary, but they are hardly as startling as the things I think I see in your organization now. It is the contented worker, the contented employee, who seems to be giving you all the troubles you have. You seem to be wanting to stir up discontent throughout your whole organization. And if that is the way to succeed in business, it will be a new one on most of the business men I know."
"I never thought of it just like that," he said. "What brings you to that conclusion?â€
"You have told me yourself," I answered, "that you have tried to get your superintendents to shift the men around from job to job, to relieve the monotony and to give them a chance to equip themselves for bigger responsibilities, but that the men objected. You were informed, you told me, that the men generally preferred to remain on the jobs which they had become used to. Mr. Sorensen confirms this. He has tried, he told me, to groom a lot of fellows for promotion, but too many of them are content to stay just where they are. Then, on our first meeting this time, you draw that picture showing the necessity of keeping the pot boiling over in order to get rid of the dross. Just who are the dross, Mr. Ford? Are they discontented employees who want to improve conditions generally, or aren't they men who have become contented with things as they are and want to sit pretty?â€
Mr. Ford's answer was a cryptic smile.
As to the skill it requires to work on the assembling line, I can not speak authoritatively. I talked with many Ford employees. Some of them like their jobs and some don't. But such criticisms as I heard have nothing whatever to do with the common theory that the machine is making automatons out of them. It is not when the Ford works are going at top speed that the workers grumble. It is when they are shut down which, it must be admitted, is not often.
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 co-ordination 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.
Little Back Breaking Toil on Belt-Line
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 handled in some such way as this?â€
"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-hour 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 the 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.
Believes Human Souls Pass on to Other Bodies
This is the secret, I think, of Ford's worldwide reputation as a humanitarian and a philanthropist, although he does not believe in giving and simply can not understand' those who laud him so. Regularly he disappoints and disillusions the lauders, but he can not down the myth. On the other hand, it is the secret of his seeming ruthlessness and his complete disinterest in grand schemes to "humanize" his plant.
Making life easy for the workers is not on his mind. He just happens to have learned, that is all, that higher and higher wages, and fewer and fewer hours of factory work, is the law of industrial progress, and that more and better cars can be made by due obedience to that law. If others disobey the law, that is their affair. Ford does not weep over the distress they thus may cause. There is no cure for human ills, as he sees it, until people learn the law of human life, and the only way they can learn is 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 soulâ€”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. Henry Ford is the world's champion individualist. But perhaps its greatest social force.
Let me mention just one of the new developments in the great River Rouge plant, of vital interest, I believe, to our whole industrial order. That is the new school for apprentices.
There has been a school at High-land Park for a number of years, a school in which hundreds of lucky youngsters have been able to learn various trades before getting jobs in the Ford factories. The new school is an out-growth of that, with some startling innovations.
One might expect of a Ford school that it would fit the boy for the trade; and that if the boy didn't quite fit the trade, he would be whittled down to fit it. One would hardly expectâ€”at least many would notâ€”that a Ford school would spend much time in fitting the trade to the boy.
But that is exactly what the River Rouge School is attempting. Conditions have changed with the advent of the new car, and the need for more skill and more ambition is felt by the management. It was relatively easy to fit a boy for a trade; but to make him want to become a master at it, and eager to develop the best that was in him in every possible way, that was not so easy. With characteristic directness, though with little theoretical study, Mr. Sorensen is experimenting with a school which shall fill these needs.
Boys' Eagerness to Learn
Whetted by the School
He is not selecting particularly qualified boys. That is not the Ford way. Selection is made easy by selecting youngsters who seem in most need of the experience; but if there are none on the waiting list who are especially poor, almost any boy will do.
But how is this boy's ambition to be inspired? Mr. Sorensen figured it outâ€”and if he had read a hundred tomes on modern pedagogy, he could not have reached a more modern conclusion: that the short cut to the answer would be to find out what the boy was interested in.
So the boy is set on one job: and if he doesn't like it, or he shows by his actions that it doesn't interest him much, he is hauled off immediately and started somewhere else.
I know one boy who was tried out under every instructor in the place and failed under them all. But the boy was not expelled from school. A casual remark of his to the effect that he "didn't want to learn any of them things, anyway," and that his father was a bricklayer and he was going to be, caused Mr. Sorensen to give orders that a course in bricklaying be started. It wasâ€”and the boy is making astonishing strides toward success.
I do not know that this idea will grow until it pervades the Ford organization, but I think it may. It may seem somewhat at variance, at first, with Mr. Ford's theory that we can learn only by doing disagree-able things, but there may be no contradiction. For how does one learn to do disagreeable things? How does one develop self-discipline? In the same way, perhaps, that Henry Ford did. By becoming so engrossed in something, like the making of a motor car, that one is willing to sacrifice every other consideration to pursue the idea to its ultimate possibilities.
sources: January 1, 1928 Forbes, Wikipedia, The Henry Ford Â© Underwood & Underwood