Correction, Clarification and Continual Learning

model-t-chassisI wrote a post some months back (July 2016) titled ‘The River Rouge – A divergent legacy’. If you haven’t read it, then it is necessary context for this post.

I received an interesting comment at the end of the post (from a contributor called Andrew) as follows:

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.

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).”

I replied to Andrew’s comment and promised that I would add an addendum1…and then, as is usual, life carried on and time flew by. It is now, in this quieter Christmas/ New Year period that I realise that I have a hole to plug.

So here goes…


My original post, whilst (in my view) highly positive of what Henry Ford achieved, used the enduring “you can have any colour you like, as long as its black” line. I used this as the strap line to observe that “[Ford’s] manufacturing process was not designed to handle variety”, as explained in separate books by H. Thomas Johnson and Mike Rother.

My post then went on to contrast two very different approaches to handling the variety conundrum.

Andrew’s comment pointed out that the Model T was available:

  • in more than one colour; and
  • with different body styles.

He went on to suggest that “The Model T was produced with tremendous variety – far more than a modern car”.

coloursColours: Yes, I can see a number of sources that refer to different colours. However, I would suggest splitting the colour story into three parts (each of which Andrew’s comment eludes to):

The early years (1908 – 1914): From cross-checking a number of Ford related websites, it would appear that the Model T was available in a small variety of colours during its early low-level production years (grey, green, blue and red).

The volume years (1914 – 1926): This period corresponds to breakthrough improvements in producing at scale (and reducing the price)….and the only colour available was black.

In his 1922 ‘My Life and Works’ autobiography Ford refers to his salesmen wanting to cater for their customers’ every whim, rather than explaining that the product already satisfies their requirements…and it was this exchange that caused his “so long as its black” idiom:

“Therefore in 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be “Model T”, and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”

Reference is made across a number of sources that black paint was used because its fast-drying properties aided speedy production. Other reasons suggested are the cheap cost of black paint, its durability and ease of reapplication (e.g. when repairing).

The end (1926 – 27): Colour choices were reintroduced…but this can be seen as an attempt to prop sales up and fight off the inevitable death of the Model T:

“Alfred Sloan [General Motors] began to offer inexpensive Chevrolets with amenities that the Model T lacked…..the market began to shift…styling and excitement suddenly counted to the customer.

 But Henry Ford refused even to consider replacing his beloved Model T…only one person persisted in warning him of the impending crisis: his son, Edsel…it was the first of many arguments that Edsel would lose.

 The Chevrolet continued to take sales from the dour Model T. By 1926, T sales had plummeted, and the realities of the market place finally convinced Henry that the end was at hand. On May 25th 1927, Ford abruptly announced the end of production for the Model T.” (Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time)

Body styles: Andrew’s comment usefully provides a link to an image showing a number of different Model T body styles, though I note that the title refers to 1911 which sits within the ‘early years’ pre-mass production period.

Breaking the body styles comment into a few parts:

The chassis: The Model T Ford was made up of the chassis (see title picture of this post) and then a body connected on to it.

From what I have read (including Ford’s words), the key point about the Model T Ford was that the chassis ‘moving down the line’ were all the same. Sure, they would differ over time as the design was (regularly) improved, but not ‘in the line’.

I find the picture below quite interesting – it shows2 a long line of Model T chassis waiting for a body (of differing styles) to be lowered on to it from a side process. Note the overhead rail coming in from the right.


Factory Bodies: Yes, I can see that different bodies were available – as can be made out from examining the above picture – but there was a limited range of standard designs (e.g. the Tourer, Roadster, Coupe and Sedan3).

You might ask “but what about all those other body styles out there?”

Aftermarket ‘engineering’: You can come across all sorts of weird and wacky looking vehicles all around the world that have been built on a Model T chassis. This is unsurprising given the sheer volume (and market share) of Model T’s that were out there.

A fair bit of ‘reconfiguring’ occurred, with owners hacking the car apart and customising it for their own needs. Many specialist aftermarket companies sprang up to perform conversions, even maturing to selling prefabricated kits for specific purposes, such as tractors. If you want a laugh at the sorts of conversions carried out then have a look at some of the images here (including a tank, a camper van…and a church!).

So, yes, I do need to correct my previous post’s implication that you could only ever buy a black Model T, and that one Model T was exactly the same as any other.

There was some variety, but does that mean Henry Ford had built a manufacturing process specifically aimed at handling this? And so I move on to….


clarificationGetting back to the point within my original ‘River Rouge’ post – that of handling variety in the line:

Andrew’s comment of The Model T was produced with tremendous variety…” might imply that Ford had indeed solved the variety riddle. I don’t think that this is the case and I’ll use a couple of passages from Ford’s own 1926 ‘Today and Tomorrow’ book to illuminate why I believe this:

“Whenever one can line up machinery for the making of exactly one thing and study everything to the end of making only that thing, then the savings which come about are startling.” (Chapter 5)

“The strongest objection to large numbers of styles and designs is that they are incompatible with economical production by any one concern. But when concerns specialize, each on its own design, economy and variety are both attainable. And both are necessary…

…we believe that no factory is large enough to make two kinds of products. Our organisation is not large enough to make two kinds of motor cars under the same roof.” (Chapter 7)

An underlying philosophy of Ford’s tremendous production success was a standard product (i.e. the opposite of variety)…which nearly became his undoing and set his organisation onto a path of catch-up with General Motors from the late 1920s onwards.

…none of this takes away from what Ford achieved and what then happened in American manufacturing and, in contrast, across the world in Japan. To summarise:

  • Henry Ford made amazing advances in respect of manufacturing, but the Model T’s homogeneity became its Achilles heel (a fact that he eventually conceded to his son Edsel and to his competitors);
  • In general, American manufacturing from the 1950s onwards went in the direction of scale and ‘unlearned’ much of what Ford had shown them; whilst
  • Toyota (learning from Ford) carried on in the direction of flow and worked out methods of handling variety in the line…thus achieving great things.

It’s worth reflecting that Taiichi Ohno credits Henry Ford with Toyota’s foundations:

“Taiichi Ohno…always spoke glowingly of Ford’s achievements…In 1982, Philip Caldwell, then head of Ford Motor Company, visited Japan. When Caldwell asked Eiji Toyoda, head of Toyota Motors, where Toyota had learned the production methods they employed so successfully in the 1970’s, Toyoda replied, ‘there’s no secret to how we learned to do what we do, Mr Caldwell. We learned it at the Rouge.’” (Johnson, quoting from David Halberstam’s ‘The Reckoning’)

Continual Learning

continual-learning-treeAndrew’s comment on my original post provided me with the impetus to learn some more.

  • I entered into a useful dialogue with Tom Johnson and Mike Rother;
  • I bought and read Ford’s book ‘Today and Tomorrow’;
  • I read around (and cross-checked) a fair bit of internet content; and
  • …I pondered what all of that lot meant.

I reflect on a wonderful Ackoff quote:

Although being taught is an obstruction to learning, teaching is a marvellous way to learn!”

i.e. it is in the act of attempting to explain something to others (e.g. via a post) that we can truly learn.

(I believe that) I now know more…but I’m even more certain that there’s much more to learn. A never-ending journey 🙂


1. Writing an Addendum: I am mindful that a number of you may have read my original post but not seen Andrew’s comment or my reply. So, rather than allowing this to remain somewhat hidden, I thought it only right (and respectful of Andrew’s fair and useful comment) to elevate my response* to a further post.

(* I am not a fan of the ‘gutter press’ splashing scandalous statements across their front pages, only to publish a unapologetic, one-line ‘retraction’ in tiny text somewhere buried on page 13)

2. Using photos: I am mindful that Ford’s production processes changed all the time and I have been warned to be careful when using a black and white picture of Model T production methods – such a picture shows how it worked at a point in time…and could easily have changed radically very soon afterwards!

3. Body Styles information taken from It shows that each of the main body styles evolved over time e.g. the Touring car went from 2 doors from 1909, to 3 doors from 1912 and then 4 doors from 1926.

…and I just have to add a picture of (what I understand to be) a Model T chassis with a body style of a house – definitely ‘after market’:



I’m just a spanner!

spannerSo there’s a TV programme that I love called ‘How it’s made’. It takes the viewer through the manufacturing journey of a unit of production. An episode might focus on something small, like making a can of fizzy drink. Another episode might focus on something HUGE, like building a cruise ship…but there is a similarity within.

The other day I watched an episode that showed how a spanner was made (a ‘combination wrench’ if we are being techy). Watch it here (it’s only 5 mins).

Once you’ve watched it, I’d ask you to put yourself in the place of one of those wonderful spanners (call yourself Sammy if you like and have a think about yourself)….I did, and here’s what I thought:

“I’m just a spanner….

  • I don’t have a brain
  • I’m not purposeful – I just ‘am’
  • I don’t have a genetic make-up passed on to me – I don’t have a mum and dad!
  • I have no memory of my past experiences from which to form opinions
  • I’m not capable of emotion
  • I can’t respond to things that happen to me or make choices for myself

In short: I cannot think or communicate, which is ironic given that I appear to be writing this post J.

Further, all of this is relatively static – it doesn’t change over time…other than perhaps the ever-so-slow process of entropy as I likely corrode.

…and so, given this I really don’t mind that:

  • my destiny (to be ‘that spanner’) is predetermined for me, and completely specified ‘up front’ by my makers…without any input from me;
  • there is nothing unique/ special about me: I am treated exactly the same as every other ‘standardised’ spanner;
  • I am bundled together with other spanners in convenient batches as and when my makers see fit;
  • I am passed from process to process as my makers determine, for their benefit;
  • I sit around (in piles) waiting for when the next process is ready for me
    • which may be days or even weeks…in fact whenever my makers wish
    • …and nothing really happens to me whilst I am waiting
  • …and so on

Each process knows exactly what it is getting from the last one and knows exactly what to do (e.g. I will arrive at process ‘x’ as a blank and I will then have a hole stamped through me, ready for process ‘y’)

It doesn’t really matter what mood each worker on my production line is in, how they are presented…even what language they speak or views they hold. They will ‘process me’ and move on with their lives!

This arrangement may very well work out just fine for our Sammy the spanner…but now let’s turn our attention to service organisations (and service value streams):

If you go back to the monologue above and substituted a customer into the role of our hero, the spanner, you would find that all is most definitely NOT okay! Go on, take a short minute to do it – it’s a good exercise in realising how and why service and manufacturing are VERY different.

Treating customers as brain-less, purpose-less, emotion-less and lacking in memory is not recommended. “Fine”  I hear you say ”….we’d never do that!”

But, now consider whether many (most?) service organisations:

  • attempt to standardise customers into a service ‘straight jacket’;
  • pass customers through rigid pre-defined processes (e.g. from front office to back office; through vertical silos of order taking – assessment – solution – payment and closure…and then ‘after care’)
  • juggle customers between multiple members of staff (with no-one really taking responsibility);
  • put customers into queues to process at the service’s convenience (perhaps using computers to elicit ‘data attributes to classify, sort, prioritise and schedule’*)
  • treat the customer’s time and effort as free; and
  • decide when the customer’s need has been fulfilled (rather than allow the customer to determine this for themselves)

* If that sounds awfully boring and techy, it’s meant to because that’s what computers are good at – algorithms, not people.

Now, you might yawn and say “Steve, you are on your ‘service is different’ band wagon again” and you’d be right! You might even point me at some posts that I have already written in a similar vein.

But the fact is that every single day we, as customers, experience service organisations treating us more like a spanner than a person. This likely causes huge frustration, failure demand and negativity towards the service being experienced.

I want a service organisation to understand:

Many a service has gone down the wrong path. It is time for them to wake up…

“No matter how long you have been on the wrong road, turn back.”

Do you sometimes feel like you are being treated like a spanner instead of a customer?

Conversely, if you work in a service organisation (or service value stream), what do you think your customers feel like?

A final reflection:

It’s worth considering the following quote: “In service, the best hand-off is no hand-off.”

I’m not saying that this is necessarily achievable…it’s more of a challenge towards which we should be pointing. At its most basic it is a sobering antidote to all those out there running in the other direction whilst chanting the ‘standardise and specialise’ mantra.

So why can’t we do that?!

tesla-factoryI don’t know about you but ever since I was a kid I have loved watching short videos of manufacturing plants and staring in wonder at how the products we take for granted actually get made! It all seems so futuristic and alien.

Here’s a short (4 mins) yet amazing video showing the mind-boggling production of TESLA Model S cars over in Fremont, California.

What do you notice? Here’s what I see:

  • a large, high volume manufacturing plant;
  • an ultra clean and tidy environment;
  • ordered, smooth flow through specialised process steps;
  • consistency of operation and velocity;
  • substantial mechanisation & automation;
  • calm and assured humans working alongside the machines;
  • …with a high quality product coming out the end.

Sounds fantastic, I’ll have some of that!

…so why is it that service organisations don’t seem to get anywhere near the awesomeness that is modern day manufacturing?

Here’s the answer…..because they try to copy manufacturing!

“Hey, that doesn’t make sense…”

Surely (I hear you say) if manufacturing is sooo advanced from the times of Henry Ford and through Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System, then service organisations should be studying what they have done and applying it to their world?

And, indeed, that is what many (most) service organisations have done. But, in doing so, they have spectacularly missed a crucial point: Service is different to manufacturing and therefore they have been ‘solving the wrong problem’.

Here’s a fundamental John Seddon quote with regards to service:

“Service differs from manufacturing. There is inherently more variety in customer demand….Whilst the Toyota method was developed to solve the problem of how to produce vehicles at the rate of customer demand, in service organisations the problem is how to design the system to absorb variety.”

Going back to the TESLA factory, notice how each car being made is essentially the same. Now I know that there is some variety – different colours, different engines, different trim levels – but it is basically the same (modular) product. I also know that Taiichi Ohno’s Toyota Production System brilliantly worked out methods to deliver this limited variety within the one production process (as opposed to requiring separate lines).

Much of manufacturing has adopted the mantra of ‘specialise, standardise, centralise and then automate’….but this is just about the opposite of what would be good for a customer requiring their very specific needs to be met for a service.

Let’s carry on with the car example but move on down the process to the service end – the selling, distribution and servicing of the car.

Let’s assume that TESLA’s competitor, TRAGIC, has applied the manufacturing mantra to their car service processes.

TRAGIC has created a centralised and highly automated ‘contact centre’ and separate ‘service centre’, both of which are broken up into highly specialised teams with standardised processes.

  • you will be directed to a website on which it is nigh on impossible to find out what you need to know, let alone a way of contacting a human being for a conversation;
  • …assuming you do find a contact number, you will then be punished by a multi-layered IVR that doesn’t have an option that meets your specific need;
  • you will have a standardised ‘scripted’ conversation with someone who doesn’t seem to be allowed to help you with your actual needs…but who can transfer you to [insert name of another department here];
  • you will then be passed around a number of specialised departments as they all ‘pass the parcel’;
  • you will be allocated to a ‘back office’ work queue and will have to repeat everything you have said so far to whomever is allocated your ‘ticket’…and they will likely disagree with whatever the person before them said to you along the lines of “oh no, I only do this” or “no, they don’t know what they are talking about, we can’t do that for you”;
  • you will talk with people who have a standard time slot allocated to you (or at least an ‘average handling time’ target), who will ask you standardised questions, categorise you according to limited drop-down boxes in their computer and then allocate you to defined ‘solutions’;
  • you will be confused as to who is actually dealing with you (or who even cares);
  • you will spend time and effort chasing up what is happening;
  • you will be provided with a standardised solution which either doesn’t meet (or only partially meets) your needs;
  • ….you will be forced through the whole sorry process again (and perhaps again) as you struggle to get your actual need resolved.

The Point:

In service, the customer comes in ‘customer shaped’. Our job is to design the system so that it can absorb their variety, not frustrate it.

Beware the manufacturing mantra of ‘specialise, standardise, centralise and then automate’.

Toyota and automation: I know that the TESLA factory looks like it’s been taken over by intelligent robots…but don’t get too carried away with automation in manufacturing. It’s worth noting that:

  • Studies have shown Toyota factories to be significantly more efficient than their competitors despite being less automated;
  • Toyota is wary of ‘over automation’ and has been reported to be reducing/ removing some automation in preference to human beings carrying out the work.

Their rationale? Putting to one side the enormous cost of developing, buying, installing and maintaining robotics, a robot simply does what it is programmed to do. Contrast this with a human that can think about the process they are performing and continually look for ways to improve it.

This can be the difference between static and dynamic processes…but of course this is only relevant if the human is in an environment that motivates them to continually improve what they do.