From 1908 to 1914, through trial and error, Henry Ford’s talented team of production managers pioneered the development of the moving conveyor belt and thus changed manufacturing practices forever. Although the technical aspects of the move to mass production were a dramatic financial success for Ford and for the millions of Americans who could now afford cars, for the workers who actually produced the cars, many human and social problems resulted.
With simplification process of the work process, workers grew to hate the monotony of the moving conveyor belt. By 1914, Ford’s car plants were experiencing huge employee turnover - often reaching levels as high as 300 or 400 percent per year as workers left because they could not handle the work-induced stress. Henry Ford recognized these problems and made an announcement: From that point on, to motivate his workforce, he would reduce the length of the workday from 9 hours to 8 hours, and the company would double the basic wage from $2.50 to $5.00 per day. This was a dramatic increase, similar to an announcement today of an overnight doubling of the minimum wage. Ford became an internationally famous figure, and the word Fordism was coined for his new approach.
Ford’s apparent generosity, however, was matched by an intense effort to control the resources - both human and material - with which his empire was built. He employed hundreds of inspectors to check up on employees, both inside and outside his factories. In the factory, supervision was close and confining. Employees were not allowed to leave their places at the production line, and they were not permitted to talk to one another. Their job was to concentrate fully on the task at hand. Few employees could adapt to this system, and they developed ways of talking out of the sides of their mouths, like ventriloquists, and invented a form of speech that became known as the “Ford Lisp.” Ford’s obsession with control brought him into greater and greater conflict with managers, who were often fired when they disagreed with him. As a result, many talented people left Ford to join his growing rivals.
Outside the workplace, Ford went so far as to establish what he called the “Sociological Department” to check up on how his employees lived and the ways they spent their time. Inspectors from this department visited the homes of employees and investigated their habits and problems. Employees who exhibited behaviors contrary to Ford’s standards (for instance, if they drank too much or were always in debt) were likely to be fired. Clearly, Ford’s effort to control his employees led him and his managers to behave in ways that today would be considered unacceptable and unethical and in the long run would impair an organization’s ability to prosper.