Think Tank

12th February 2015 by Jason Vincent

My Life and Work – Book of the Month December 2014

I recently finished reading ‘My Life and Work’ written by Henry Ford. Interestingly, I tried to determine when the book itself was actually written but was unable to do so… I’m guessing it was towards the end of Henry Ford’s life, though the passion with which he wrote and viewed life, and the challenges he faced, was burning as bright as ever! He was one of the firmest believers in hard work I have ever come across, and yet clearly recognised the importance of time outside of work, and our right to it:

The natural thing to do is to work – to recognise that prosperity and happiness can be obtained only through honest effort. […] Freedom is the right to work a decent length of time and to get a decent living for doing so; to be able to arrange the little personal details of one’s own life.

It’s an absolutely fascinating read. As someone who is extremely passionate about engineering and the process of continual improvement, I actually regarded it as one of the best books I’ve read in a long time – possibly ever. It’s also a surprisingly easy read – his language is casual, and it’s as much about showcasing his expertise in what he does, as it is about expressing his frustrations about the world around him – such as the healthcare or education systems (which ironically we could still feel the same frustration over). As I turned the pages, I couldn’t help but constantly reach for the nearest pen to highlight key paragraphs and phrases – there are possibly more quotes to live by in this book than just about any other!
When we reflect on the fact that this is a man who was born in the 1860’s and started Ford in the early 1900’s, it’s amazing just how much his core beliefs and values have in common with some of the greatest leaders of today. Steve Job’s for instance, constantly emphasising the need to focus on a single or a few ideas. Henry Ford practically starts his auto-biography saying:

 I have no quarrel with the general attitude of scoffing at new ideas. It is better to be skeptical of all new ideas and to insist upon being shown rather than to rush around in a continuous brainstorm after every new idea. […] One idea at a time is about as much as any one can handle.

When we think about the Ford brand today, what thoughts rush through our head? To be honest, I personally wasn’t too sure. They still to this day achieve some of the highest automotive sales of any brand, taking both 1st and 2nd spot in the UK charts for 2014 with the Ford Fiesta and Ford Focus respectively. However, when we think back to the early 1900’s, we have to realise that this was a time where cars barely existed! And yet here was a man driven by his pursuit of efficiency, defining the automotive manufacturing standard before anyone had even gotten on their feet. This paragraph says a lot:

When we talk about improvements usually we have in mind some change in a product. An ‘improved’ product is one that has been changed. That is not my idea. I do not believe in starting to make until I have discovered the best possible thing. This, of course, does not mean that a product should never be changed, but I think that it will be found more economical in the end not even to try to produce an article until you have fully satisfied yourself that utility, design, and material are the best.

Ironically, this is in stark contrast to the ‘lean’ methodology employed by start-ups and innovation departments alike – start small, start building, and iterate. I don’t personally know the ins and outs of Ford’s current innovation department, but I would be fascinated to see how it operates, and how this has changed over the years! There are, however, such clear synergies when it comes to his vision and that of other great entrepreneur’s. I highlighted one point in particular that concisely conveys his opinion with regards to failure:

There is no disgrace in honest failure; there is disgrace in fearing to fail. What is past is useful only as it suggests ways and means for progress.

All in all, it’s an incredibly inspiring read. My copy has dozens of paragraphs highlighted and pages bookmarked – I’d recommend it to anyone in business, or looking to setup for the first time, particularly if you’re in a technical field.

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