What Is Fordism?

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Definitions of Fordism are varied, numerous and at times conflicting. This essay discusses which features are pertinent to and uniquely defining of Fordism rather than Taylorism, Sloanism, Toyotism or any other socio-economic policy with which it may have become intertwined.

While many of these -isms share characteristics, this essay will try to distinguish which were distinctly Fordist and how they shaped the revolution in terms of management and organisation and ultimately society. Also discussed will be some of the limitations of Ford’s practices, which at times were just as necessary as the successes in inspiring revolution.

Meticulous and innovative organisation are what first propelled the Ford Motor company to success. In this regard it is principally characterised by fragmentation of tasks, specialisation of tools, mass production, and vertical integration.

‘Mass production’ a term coined by Henry Ford himself, was the principal force behind the firm’s early success, marking a radical departure from traditional craft manufacture. In the early 1920’s Ford was producing 2 million identical Model T’s on an annual basis, whereas Panhard et Lavassor the world’s leading car manufacturer in 1984 could muster at best one thousand heterogeneous cars a year (Womack 1990).

The main way that Ford achieved this astonishing level of production in comparison to his rivals was by deconstructing the production process into simple, individual and easy tasks. There are obvious symmetries with Taylorism here, whereby Frederick Taylor famously broke down work into individual tasks and timed how long it took to complete each one. From here he worked out the maximum output a worker could achieve in a day, and set incentives for going above and disincentives for falling below this output. Ford too achieved great success by degrading and decomposing work into small and simple tasks. Despite having a Works-study department dedicated to calculating how long each task should take (Beynon 1984), Ford and his chief subordinates denied copying Taylor (Petersen 1967). Work-time study was a common managerial practice of the age. Where Taylor decomposed the tasks to improve efficiency of the individual, Ford welded the individual labours together to increase output of the firm (Clarke 1990). Petersen (1967) clarifies the difference by saying that Ford exerted control through the machine, whereas Taylor exerted it directly through the person, adding that Ford had no desire to improve people, presumably because the tasks were deliberately so simple. Beynon (1984) adds to this stating that the managers at Ford were only interested in producing the maximum number of cars that the plant could produce not the maximum the individual could produce as Taylor did.

Prior to Fordism, cars were built by skilled mechanics using a few tools for a number of jobs, and notably carrying out the laborious and time consuming task of filing and ‘fitting’ heterogeneous parts so that they attached properly (Womack 1990). Ford removed the skill and time requirements of this process by insisting on absolute standardisation of all gauges, components and tools, so that each part fitted every time, without the need for skilled fitting. Further to this, he made it so that there was only one tool per task, so that the worker only needed to know how to use the tool in one specific way, dramatically reducing requirements on experience. Fuchs (2002), although not present at the time, says that even immigrants with little to no command of the English language required only “a few minutes” of training to master their work station, as opposed to the decades required to master craft production. Relatively recently, US chemical firms have found themselves caught short by an under-skilled workforce. In a study completed in 1999 Besson states that 71% of the companies surveyed had resorted to “restructuring job descriptions and tasks”, i.e. fragmenting the work process,...
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