in Warner, M. & Poole M. (eds.)
International Encyclopaedia of Business and Management - Handbook of Human Resource Management
3. Fordism as a Labour Process
4. Fordism as Socio-economic System
At its very simplest level, Fordism refers to the production methods utilised by Henry Ford in his car assembly plants at River Rouge and Highland Park in Detroit in the first two decades of the twentieth century. In these plants, Ford further developed both the American System of Manufacturing, consisting of the use of single purpose machinery; manufacture of standardised products; and the interchangeability of parts, and Taylorist scientific management. However, the most innovatory aspects of the Ford plants were the introduction of the moving, mechanised assembly line, the use of the firm’s sociology department to control worker behaviour and the introduction of the ‘Five-Dollar’ day. The application of Fordist techniques is not a universal phenomena but can only occur under certain social and economic conditions such the presence of mass consumption, Keynesian economic regulation and widespread State economic intervention.
It is difficult to over estimate the importance to the process of manufacturing the innovations and changes introduced at Ford’s Detroit factories between 1910 and 1915 and their later incorporation into the business practice of organizations throughout the Western world. By producing the Model T and ‘diffusing of the techniques’ of mass production, ‘Fordism’, a concept which encompasses both the Ford production system and its parallel system of labour relations, may be said to have ‘changed the world’. (Hounsell, 1984: 218).Whilst it may be the case that the introduction of Japanese production techniques is restructuring the labour process in major industrial sectors such as that of automotives (Womack, Jones and Roos, 1990), it is Fordism and not Lean Production that is The Machine That Changed the World. The importance of Fordism as a mass production system, defined as ‘long runs of standardised products made on dedicated special purpose equipment by semi-skilled workers’ (Williams, et al, 1987:1) can be overstated, as mass production itself is often ‘used interchangeably with the concept of “Ford” as a kind of historical shorthand for the manufacturing system discovered by Ford and then, supposedly, widely imitated’ (:1). Williams et al (1987) dispute whether the traditional definition of mass production describes what Ford actually did and describe methods such as lack of vertical integration, miraculous reductions in labour hours per car, running with low stock levels as proto Japanese. However, the analysis of Japanisation and Fordism are here linked to labour process issues. Fordism however, refers to much more than the methods of Henry Ford, as it describes practices in the political and economic realms as well as in the realm of production.
However ‘Fordism’ from its first usage by Gramsci (1978) upto its re-invention by Aglietta (1979) has had a wider purchase and latterly refers to the dominance of wider social and economic processes such as Keynesian economics and the politics of the welfare state in post-war western Europe and the US. It is only at this level that we can properly relate Fordism to mass production and its corollary in mass consumption. In the analysis of the effects of Fordism in the post war period there are two distinct theoretical positions. On one hand, ‘regulationists’ such as Aglietta see Fordism as a determinant stage in the development of capitalism in which at the level of the factory, the technical division of labour and the use of semi-skilled labour constitutes a particular form or regime of accumulation supported by a mode of regulation consisting of a mixed economy, the re-distribution of wealth through...
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