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Bruce Hamilton

Innovation

Innovation Centennial

Are you building employees as well as products?

Published: Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - 09:34

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of the introduction of a moving assembly line at Henry Ford’s Highland assembly plant, an innovation that inaugurated mass production.

Ford was not the first to build cars in an assembly line. Ransom Olds did that first in 1902, and Ford copied him. And, according to Ford himself, the idea to create a moving assembly line came to him while watching the moving dis-assembly line at a Chicago meatpacking plant. But Ford put these two ideas together to create “flow manufacturing,” a term he coined during the 1920s and that is still considered innovative a century later.

Several weeks before Ford Motor Co. celebrated its centennial, another 100-year anniversary marked the passing of Eji Toyoda at age 100. Credited with championing the entry of Toyota into the United States, Eji Toyoda was instrumental in forging a collaboration between General Motors and Toyota to form New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) in Fremont, California. Later, under his leadership Toyota grew in size and stature to become the standard for product excellence and customer satisfaction.

In an ironic centennial twist, Toyoda traveled to the United States in 1950 to study at Ford’s Rouge plant, considered then to be the world’s most productive auto plant.

At that time, Ford employees could out-produce Toyoda workers by a 700-percent margin. Toyoda grasped the strength of the Ford system, particularly its emphasis on flow. But Toyoda also noted the production system’s inherent inflexibility and, more significantly, its top-down and compartmentalized decision making. Material flowed, but not ideas. Quality was not confirmed at the source. Shop-floor employees were only eyes and hands.

The Ford technical approach may have been preeminent, but its social practices revealed a great weakness. Ford’s weakness became Toyota’s strength.

Today, the “Toyota Way” developed under Eji Toyoda’s leadership is still mostly ignored by most business leaders. The buzz is all about investment in technical innovation (a code word for automation), but there is little discussion on the innovative development of people.

How about in your organization? Are you building employees as well as products? Share a story.

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change; and he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an on-going reflection on lean philosophy and practices with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.

Comments

ford's miracle

As any miracle, Ford's is a mystery. The japanese are said to identify themselves with the company they work for; and we are told of their self-sacrifices when they fail. We - in western Europe - don't think that way, that's a fact, it's simply so. "we" would never think of building an employee: our culture is such that we respect individuality more than products.