Henry Ford & the Cost of Not Innovating

I’ve been thinking & reading recently on innovation, for ministry and otherwise. I came across this terrific story about the innovative, stubborn, cantankerous, and deeply flawed Henry Ford. Ford changed the world with his Model T, but his “obsession” with it put the company firmly behind. Clearly, even the most gifted innovators can become enamored with their creations, and ultimately harm what they care most about.

So I’m asking “What are our Model T’s in ministry?” The basics stay the same, but what time-specific approaches do we need to let go of in order to move from the dirt roads to the paved highways?

 

Background: When Henry Ford first marketed the Model
T in 1908, it was a state-of-the-art automobile. “There were cheaper cars on the market,” writes Robert Lacey in Ford: The Men and Their Machine, “but no one could offer the same combination of innovation and reliability.” Over the years, the price went down dramatically … and as the first truly affordable quality automobile, the Model T revolutionized American culture.

Decision: The Model T was the only car that the Ford Motor Co. made. As the auto industry grew and competition got stiffer, everyone in the company – from Ford’s employees to his family – pushed him to update the design. Lacey writes:

The first serious suggestions that the Model T might benefit from some major updating had been made when the car was only four years old. In 1912 Henry Ford had taken [his family] on their first visit to Europe, and on his return he discovered that his [chief aides] had prepared a surprise for him. [They] had labored to produce a new, low-slung version of the Model T, and the prototype stood in the middle of the factory floor, its gleaming red lacquer-work polished to a high sheen.

“He had his hands in his pockets,” remembered one eyewitness, “and he walked around the car three or four times, looking at it very closely … Finally, he got to the left-hand side of the car that was facing me, and he takes his hands out, gets hold of the door, and bang! He ripped the door right off! God! How the man done it, I don’t know!”

Ford proceeded to destroy the whole car with his bare hands. It was a message to everyone around him not to mess with his prize creation. Lacey concludes: “The Model T had been the making of Henry Ford, lifting him from being any other Detroit automobile maker to becoming car maker to the world. It had yielded him untold riches and power and pleasure, and it was scarcely surprising that he should feel attached to it. But as the years went by, it became clear that Henry Ford had developed a fixation with his masterpiece which was almost unhealthy.”

Ford had made his choice clear. In 1925, after more than 15 years on the market, the Model T was pretty much the same car it had been when it debuted. It still had the same noisy, underpowered four-cylinder engine, obsolete “planetary” transmission, and horse-buggy suspension that it had in the very beginning. Sure, Ford made a few concessions to the changing times, such as balloon tires, an electric starter, and a gas pedal on the floor. And by the early 1920s, the Model T was available in a variety of colors beyond Ford black. But the Model T was still … a Model T. “You can paint up a barn,” one hurting New York Ford dealer complained, “but it will still be a barn and not a parlor.”

Impact: While Ford rested on his laurels for a decade and a half, his competitors continued to innovate. Four-cylinder engines gave way to more powerful six-cylinder engines with manual clutch-and-gearshift transmissions. These new cars were powerful enough to travel at high speeds made possible by the country’s new paved highways. Ford’s “Tin Lizzie,” designed in an era of dirt roads, was not.

Automobile buyers took notice and began trading up; Ford’s market share slid to 57% of U.S. automobile sales in 1923 down to 45% in 1925, and to 34% in 1926, as companies like Dodge and General Motors steadily gained ground. By the time Ford finally announced, that a replacement for the Model T was in the works in May 1927, the company had already lost the battle. That year, Chevrolet sold more cars than Ford for the first time. Ford regained first place in 1929 thanks to strong sales of its new Model A, but Chevrolet passed it again the following year and never looked back. “From 1930 onwards,” Robert Lacey writes, “the once-proud Ford Motor Company had to be content with second place.”

I read this story here. [This post is from my archives and originally appeared in 2008].

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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3 thoughts on “Henry Ford & the Cost of Not Innovating

  1. Hey Steve – read and enjoyed this one. I've been thinking about this in the context of my own ministry to med students. As you know, they're incredibly busy and the standard cycles/tactics of ministry don't work with them without some adaptation. Your post deserves further thought in the context of our own, specific ministry situations. Thanks for stirring the pot.