5/7/12 - "employees are stupid"

In today's excerpt - mass production. To build cars cheaply enough for the average person to buy, Henry Ford had to redesign the assembly line according to the dictates of Frederick Taylor, breaking down each task into its simplest components so that each worker was responsible for a single task that could be repeated all day with a minimum of wasted motion and time. This proved so dehumanizing that turnover skyrocketed to 350 percent. To counteract this, Ford doubled his wages. This paradox of rote work and high wages ushered in the beginnings of the great American urban middle class:

"The central challenge confronting the automobile industry was economic as well as technological: how to build an automobile inexpensive enough so that people other than the wealthy could buy it. The man who most successfully tackled this problem was Henry Ford, a former machinist and mechanical engineer from Michigan, who built his first automobile in 1896 and in 1903 founded the Ford Motor Company. ...

"Ford achieved this success by improving the techniques of mass production, putting into practice what he called 'the principles of power, accuracy, economy, system, continuity, and speed.' Particularly in the pioneering plant he opened in Highland Park, Michigan, in 1910, he invested heavily in highly specialized machinery while simultaneously subdividing labor on the shop floor. To further the goals of continuity and speed, Ford in 1913 adopted the moving assembly line, a network of conveyor belts and overhead chains that carried all pieces of the automobile from one worker to the next. 'Every piece of work in the shop moves,' Ford observed a few years later. 'There is no lifting or trucking of anything other than materials.' The moving assembly line produced substantial savings, in part because employees were compelled to work more intensively, at a pre-set rhythm. Within a decade, the moving assembly line was adopted throughout the industry, hastening the disappearance of small manufacturers who could not afford to retool their plants.

"Ford's assembly line and his production techniques in general were exemplars of 'scientific management,' a phrase and approach made popular by Philadelphia engineer and businessman Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylor was one of the nation's first specialists in shop-floor management, and his short book The Principles of Scientific Management was the best-selling business book of the first half of the twentieth century. Taylor believed that workplaces could be made more efficient by training, inducing, and compelling workers to labor more steadily and intensively. He conducted time and motion studies to analyze the tasks workers were expected to perform and then encouraged employers to reorganize the work process to minimize wasted motion and time. He also favored piece-rate payment schemes to compel employees, many of whom he described as 'stupid,' to work more quickly. 'Faster work can be assured,' wrote Taylor, 'only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements ... and enforced cooperation.'

"Not surprisingly, most industrial workers resisted such schemes. One worker at the Ford Motor Company complained that 'when the whistle blows he starts to jerk and when the whistle blows again he stops jerking.' At Ford and elsewhere, a common response to the brutal intensification of work was absenteeism and high quit rates: in 1913, Ford's daily absentee rate was 10 percent, while annual turnover exceeded 350 percent. To reduce turnover, which was costly to the company, Ford doubled the daily wages of his most valued employees, to five dollars a day. This strategy was successful in stabilizing the labor force and reducing operating costs."


Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keyssar, and Daniel J. Kevles


Inventing America


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2003 by Pauline Maier, Merritt Roe Smith, Alexander Keyssar, and Daniel J. Kevles


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