The River Rouge – a divergent legacy

ford-model-t-1925-6I expect that you’ve heard of the industrialist Henry Ford (1863 – 1947), but what about his massive ‘River Rouge’ car plant?

If you had gone for a ‘factory visit’ in the late 1920s, what would you have noticed?

The Model T Production line1

Ford wanted to provide a car that the masses could afford to buy – to ‘democratise the automobile’. Enter the Ford Model T – a car designed to be easy to drive and easy to repair, with standard interchangeable parts.

…but it wasn’t just about the car’s design. It was about the design of how the car was made.

In 1906, Ford’s engineers did something different – they experimented with the physical layout of their manufacturing system. They arranged their manufacturing tools in the sequence of processing steps rather than the normal practise of by machine type. This seems ridiculously obvious now (hindsight is a wonderful thing!), and the result was considerably higher productivity. This innovation created a flow in the order of the work but, at this stage of the Ford story, each work step was still done on stationary tables and stands.

In 1913, they took the next breakthrough step: they experimented with the moving assembly line for a small section of the process and, after some fine-tuning, this increased productivity fourfold…..and so the engineers got to work spreading this method throughout the manufacturing value stream.

Ford was constantly reducing his costs, not by ‘cost-cutting’ but through a fanatical focus on creating flow. This was achieved by a combination of continuous (incremental) and breakthrough (step change) improvements…which enabled Ford to pass on these savings by consistently lowering the price of the Model T…which increased demand…which outstripped supply…which meant that ever further production innovations were required to keep up!

Highland ParkA great deal of the experimentation explained above was carried out at the purpose built Highland Park factory. It was six-stories high, with a railroad track running down a central atrium (pictured) and cranes lifting materials from the rail carriages up to balconies that opened to the appropriate floors on either side.

The basic pieces of the Model T started at the top floor and, through the use of chutes, conveyors and tubes between floors and the force of gravity, they made their way down through the various sub-assembly processes until they reached the ground floor final assembly conveyor….and then the completed car could ‘drive off the line’.

River RougeWhilst Highland Park was an amazing feat of engineering, it had its limitations – such as the central crane-way that was probably a huge bottleneck! Henry Ford went for one more innovative jump – he created an enormous horizontal factory complex called the River Rouge2. The site started with raw iron ore and materials and finished with completed automobiles. It had its own ship docks, power generation plant, blast furnaces and rolling mills – all arranged to achieve flow (I’ve added the basic flow over an aerial picture).

“The River Rouge Plant in 1925 produced about one vehicle per minute in a total lead time of about three days and nine hours from steel making to finished vehicle.” (Source: Henry Ford’s book ‘Today and Tomorrow’)

“…as long as it’s black”

You are probably familiar with the famous Henry Ford quote that ‘you can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black’. Today this sounds quaint, even humorous but there’s a seriously important point within: the manufacturing process was not designed to handle variety.

This hadn’t been a problem – people just wanted to be able to afford a car! – but rising standards of living and the birth of modern marketing gave rise to the ‘sophisticated consumer’. The new problem became offering ever wider variety (e.g. different colours, engine choices, trim levels, add-ons….) whilst retaining low-prices (and therefore mass-production costs).

And so to the crux of this post: Lots of organisations from all around America and the world went to the River Rouge to learn…but what did they see…and, therefore, what did they go away to do?

American Manufacturers post World War II.

So American organisations saw scale at the River Rouge.

Unfortunately, achieving the product variety now demanded by customers meant regularly stopping the production line to change tooling to be able to produce the different variants. Delivering variety was seriously hindering speed.

What to do? Here’s what they came up with:

  • Let’s interrupt the flow and decouple the stages within the production line, allowing the different processes to operate independently, and create buffer stocks between each process;
  • Let’s build each process to the largest scale feasible, and then run large batches per product variant through at the fastest rate possible and thus keep the number of changeovers required down to a minimum.
  • Let’s build warehouses to store all the resultant inventory (Work-in-process and finished goods)

This fundamentally changed production from workers producing for the next process step to workers merely producing for inventory. It became a case of ‘make lots and inspect later’. It was virtually a crime to stop the line3 – a disaster for quality!

Of course, once the main process steps were decoupled, their co-location didn’t matter so much. So rather than having a number of end-to-end manufacturing sites across America, the ‘logic’ could extend to…

  • Let’s centralise process steps into ‘centres of excellence’ so that we can increase scale even further! We might end up with, say, a massive steel works in one city, huge sub-assemblies in another city and a mega final assembly yet somewhere else.

…and the above ‘solution’ to variety introduced massive wastes in the forms of transportation across sites; inventory and its motion as it is constantly transferred in and out of the warehouse; over-production and obsolescence; defects through poor quality and rework…and on and on and on.

You could conclude that they ‘unlearned’ (even destroyed) what Henry Ford had achieved before variety had been introduced.

The above led American manufacturers to the hell of:

  • centralised planning, culminating in mega algorithms calculated by Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP ii) computer applications, producing theoretical answers far from reality; and
  • ‘management by results’ using managerial accounting data (unit costs, rates of return, targets, budgets,…) to command and control the work.

This approach, even though it was hugely wasteful, proved profitable until the 1970s…until domestic demand became satiated and globalisation opened up the market to other manufacturers. Things suddenly became rather competitive….

Over in Japan

The Japanese, and Toyota in particular, saw flow at the River Rouge.

Taiichi Ohno (Toyota) realised that flow was the important bit: “ [they] observed that Ford’s plant conserved resources, by having processes linked in a continuous chain and by running slowly enough so that people could stop and fix errors when they occurred.”  (Johnson4)

Japan, unlike America, did not have the luxury of abundant resources after World War II. They couldn’t afford to create huge factories or tie up money in inventory…so they had to find a different way – to do a lot with a little.

Taiichi Ohno came to the conclusion that variety and flow had to go together i.e. “a system where material and work flowed continuously, one order at a time” (Johnson).

This created some clear challenges to work on:

  • rather than simply accepting that machine changeovers took time, Ohno set his workers the challenge of continuously reducing set up and change-over times; and
  • rather than running high-volume batches per variant, Ohno empowered each worker to design and control the steps they performed so that they could perform different steps on each unit that passed through them

In short, he set his people a huge visionary challenge, of working together as a system to think about the incremental, and sometimes giant, steps they could take to handle variety ‘in the line’.

Rather than centralised planning with standardised work dictated to them, the workers were empowered, and encouraged, to think for themselves, to deal with what was in front of them, to experiment and to innovate….and to share what they had learned.

And, wow, they came up with some fabulous techniques such as ‘Single-Minute Exchange of Dies’ (SMED), ‘pull’ using kanban, product supermarkets, ‘stop the line’ using andon cords, visual management, machine ‘right sizing’…and on and on.

I could write about each of these…but I’m not going to (at least not now). The point is not the brilliant innovations themselves. It is the clear and permanent challenges that were set and the constant progress towards them.

You may copy ALL of Toyota’s techniques but they (and other like-minded organisations) will still leave you far behind. Why? Because, whilst you are attempting to copy them they are racing yet further ahead. Indeed, what you copy (even if you ‘get’ the why) may be an out-dated technique before you go live! (This is to compare a static vs. dynamic environment)

What about service?

The Western (?) ‘solution’ for service organisations has, sadly, been virtually the same – scale: to standardise, specialise, centralise and ‘crank up the volume’.

Yet the challenge of handling customer variety is so much bigger: variety for service organisations is virtually infinite – it’s different per customer and, even for a given customer, it differs as their circumstances change.

So should we just pick up the ‘Toyota tool kit’ and get implementing? No. The techniques to meet the challenge will differ. Service is NOT manufacturing.

But can we learn from Toyota? Most certainly – but this must be at the deepest ‘beliefs and behaviours’ level.

The core message from the above is that service organisations should design their system such that the front line are allowed, and enabled, to absorb variety in customer demand.

If you run a service organisation and you have set up:

  • a front office ‘order taking’ function to categorise demand (which can only be based on the limited information available to them), and break it down into standard ‘work objects’ from an allowable catalogue of variants;
  • a ‘workforce management’ function to: prioritise and allocate (i.e. push) these work objects into ‘work queues’, usually by temporal batches (e.g. by day/ shift or weekly);
  • multiple specialised back office silos to churn through their allocated work, ‘motivated’ by activity targets (and incentives) regarding volumes of work performed; and, as a result
  • a complete confusion as to who is taking responsibility for resolving the customer need

…then you have seen scale, through commanding and controlling the work, as the ‘solution’.

If, however, you are on a journey towards:

  • equipping the people at the point of contact with the necessary expertise and freedom to respond to what most customers will predictably want (i.e. the bulk of demand); and
  • where more unusual demand hits the system, allowing and enabling these same ‘front of service’ people to ‘pull’ expertise to assist, yet retaining ownership of the service provision (thereby speeding up their rate of learning and widening their skills and knowledge)

…then you are on a similar track to Ohno: Pursuing flow for each unique customer demand, through revealing and harvesting the passion and pride within your workers.

Footnotes:

1. Sources: Much of the above comes from early chapters within three books:

  • ‘Relevance Regained’ by H. Thomas Johnson
  • ‘Profit Beyond Measure’ by H. Thomas Johnson
  • ‘Toyota Kata’ by Mike Rother

Other details (including pictures) come from searching around the ‘interweb’ thing.

…and of course the service ending is inspired by the work of John Seddon.

2. Historical point of detail: “The River Rouge was built to produce Model T Fords for decades to come, [but] by the time it was capable of full production later in the [1920s], a factory a tenth its size could have handled the demand for Model Ts.” (Wiley)

i.e. Henry Ford had built this huge production machine but his product had gone out of fashion because its competitor, General Motors, was providing the variety that customers now wanted, albeit using scale to do so. Ford was now in a dash to recover.

3. ‘Stop the line’ crime: Workers knew that managers wanted them to make as many as possible, with no ‘down time’. I understand that this is where the phrase to ‘throw a spanner in the works’ comes from…which refers to a disgruntled worker ‘accidentally’ dropping a tool into the assembly line mechanism so that the line stopped and they all got a break whilst the cause was found and rectified.

4. A fresh giant: Johnson is a giant for me, and I’ve been meaning to add his ‘giant bio’ to this blog for ages now…I have finally done so 🙂

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5 thoughts on “The River Rouge – a divergent legacy

  1. You’re perpetuating an inaccurate myth about the Model T and production at Highland Park. The Model T was produced with tremendous variation–far more than a modern car. There were at any given time at least six different body styles of Model T, representing a lot more complexity than a simple color change. http://www.curbsideclassic.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Ford-Model-T-line-up-1911ad-lg.jpg

    As to color, the Model T was available in several colors–but not black–in its early days when the production rates were low. Black was introduced, not to minimize variation, but because black paint dried quicker and enabled faster, higher production rates. By 1926, paint science matured to the point that six additional colors were introduced to go along with black (and better compete with Chevrolet).

    Like

    • Good stuff! Thanks for your comment – always good to have more information.

      I agree that the early paragraph in my post in respect of “black” is inaccurate. I will further interrogate my resources and will make an appropriate amendment (and add an addendum at the bottom to refer to this change)…will probably take me a few days to sort.

      Also, I will strengthen the implied point in the post that Toyota learned a great deal from studying the River Rouge.

      I don’t believe that this alters the point of the post, or the rest of the information. Namely, that:
      – American (Western?) manufacturers did take the ‘Economies of scale’ (and ‘management by the numbers’) route as described…and unlearning what Ford had achieved;
      – Toyota and Taiichi Ohno did take the ‘flow’ route (handling variety ‘in the line’), with amazing results;
      – A huge gap opened up between the two, which is why MIT set up their International Motor Vehicle Program in the late 1970s (giving rise to the book ‘The Machine that Changed the World’ and the subsequent ‘Lean’ label)

      As an aside, one of my resources refers to Henry Ford having a major fall out with his son Edsel about the Model T. Henry wanted to persist with it, whilst Edsel could see what was happening in the market and wanted to create new models. I may weave this in if it now becomes appropriate.

      And, finally, you have opened up a new avenue of amateur research for me (which is always good): I will be adding a few more books to my reading list and probably emailing a few experts, asking for their commentary in respect of Ford and how he handled variety.

      Regards

      Like

      • So Andrew Wagner has acted and responded to provide additional knowledge

        such action must be acknowledged

        but what is of most interest is

        what the giantknave has to say

        about the river rouge way

        and as such

        one must respect

        that being present

        may not be a possibility

        in the context

        of the manifest

        Toyota and Ohno

        understood flow

        but better yet

        is the document

        of Shimazu

        and Ba

        the in between

        and the we

        thank you

        knave

        please

        continue your rave

        so my ignorance

        is as Plato wrote of Socrates

        to be or to become

        Hamlet

        bugger

        dialectical reason

        may be the most opportune response

        to the present season

        of our (mankind) loss

        of being

        for as Sartre indicates

        mauvaise foi

        dominates

        and as such

        to replicate

        please Knave

        continue your attempt to educate

        Te waka

        he wa

        Aroha

        Like

  2. Your post interests me much
    with plenty of elan

    So you are an H. Thomas Johnson reader also!
    and a Toyota fan!

    Much of what you have written in this post
    resonates with the members of my clan

    I am very interested
    in you joining in our gang

    Should my reply intrigue you so
    Please understand

    That what you say
    Resonates

    matters much
    of late

    may you choose
    to communicate

    please respond
    with a date

    to ross.milne@aut.ac.nz
    and so I await

    Like

    • Hi Ross. Nice lines!

      I am very happy to communicate with you. I will send you a private email at some point soon.

      I should explain that I choose to remain anonymous within the blog (though many of my friends and colleagues know that it is me).

      My reasoning is that I hope people read my posts simply for what they are, and think about them accordingly….and that attributes such as ‘who I am’, ‘where I’ve been educated’, ‘who I’ve worked for’ etc. are (mainly) irrelevant.

      Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

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