Thursday, October 15, 2009

More on Ford

I didn't realize how much controversy my post on Henry Ford would create. I got a number of emails and comments pointing out that Ford was a controlling, intolerant individual.

I won't argue that. The Ford Motor Company actually had an investigative division called the Social Welfare Department to make certain that employees were living according to Ford's moral code--being thrifty, taking proper care of their families and not getting drunk. He also disapproved of employees taking in boarders, "regarding their homes as something to make money out of rather than as a place to live in."

I'm not going to defend Ford. He doesn't need me to write an apologia for him. Like all of us, he was a multi-faceted individual. He also remains a personal hero of mine. He was constructive, enthusiastic, and he loved his work. Instead of whining when he encountered obstacles, he sought solutions.

Publishing could do worse than study his life. As an example, here are three of the innovations he put into place in his factories:

  • In January, 1914, he raised wages for qualifying employees (remember that Social Welfare Department) from $2.34 to $5 a day, more than doubling their pay.

  • In his book My Life and Work published in 1923, Ford explained his workers were now receiving $6 a day for an eight-hour day instead of the nine-hour days they had previously been working. Workers in other factories were still working much longer days.
  • U.S. employees had been given Sundays off in order to permit them a day of rest and a day on which to worship for some time. Jewish immigrant workers complained about being off on Sunday when Saturday was their day of worship. Labor unions agitated for more time off. Ford began closing his factory on Saturday in 1926--reducing the work week from 48 hours to 40--long before other industrialists did so.

While all of these innovations were pro-employee, each allowed him to solve a business problem:

  • Higher wages helped reduce employee turnover. In My Life and Work, Ford says: "In 1914, when the first plan went into effect, we had 14,000 employees and it had been necessary to hire at the rate of about 53,000 a year in order to keep a constant force of 14,000 . . . Today we keep no figures; we now think so little of our turnover that we do not bother to keep records."
  • Ford went to an eight-hour day in order to run three eight-hour shifts, raising his factory's productivity.

  • Increased productivity permitted Ford to produce his cars more inexpensively. Increased wages permitted his employees to purchase those more affordable cars. However, he realized something was missing--the leisure time to enjoy the vehicles. According to NPR's Marketplace program on September 4, 2009, Ford gave his employees Saturday off and invented the concept of the "weekend road trip" to help sell his cars.

What I liked about Ford's solutions was that everyone won: Ford, his workers and the American economy.

New York publishing today operates with a zero sum game mentality. In order for someone to win, someone else has to lose. In order for the publishing house to be profitable, the author has to take a low royalty rate, the reader has to pay outrageously high e-book prices and the hardcover has to be protected from price erosion.

In November, 2008, I heard an interview on NPR's Weekend America about the current state of the U.S. auto industry. The commentator said: "Auto makers are going to have to get more creative. They are going to have to innovate, to redesign and re-imagine the way they do things, the way they do business."

I wrote that down because I thought it was apropos of the publishing industry as well.

Publishing could do worse than think like Henry Ford.

Today's Ford quote: "I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can't be done. "

Amen, brother.

1 comment:

Peter L. Winkler said...

Ford's motivation for instituting the benificent labor practices you describe was to try to discourage workers from unionizing. Ford hated labor unions and had a private security force run by a real thug, whose job it was to beat up unionists.