Henry Ford and the anti-intellectual argument against organizational design

Henry Ford and the anti-intellectual argument against organizational design
Courtesy Library of Congress

Here’s how Henry Ford opens chapter 6 of his autobiography My Life and Work, published in 1922:

That which one has to fight hardest against in bringing together a large number of people to do work is excess organization and consequent red tape. To my mind there is no bent of mind more dangerous than that which is sometimes described as the “genius for organization.” This usually results in the birth of a great big chart showing, after the fashion of a family tree, how authority ramifies. The tree is heavy with nice round berries, each of which bears the name of a man or of an office. Every man has a title and certain duties which are strictly limited by the circumference of his berry.

Over-engineered org charts are bad. Duh

This claim is ubiquitous in the world of business. I quote Henry Ford because he’s famous, and he made this argument almost 100 years ago. But by no means is he the most visible thinker in this regard.

And on its face, the argument that too much organization impedes a business is tautological. What’s interesting isn’t that an over-engineered org chart drives inefficiency. What’s interesting is what you mean by “over-engineered”.

But Henry Ford makes a particularly clumsy critique of the effort to organize a business. He claims that “no bent of mind [is] more dangerous” than expertise in the area of business organization. No bent of mind is more dangerous? What an absurd exaggeration.

Ford’s claim was wrong, even as he was writing it

Ford’s biggest problem wasn’t his exaggeration. His biggest problem was he was flat out wrong. A lack of organization is exactly what was killing large business in America circa 1920. Alfred D. Chandler wrote a whole book about it, called Strategy and Structure, which was published in 1962.

Chandler profiles four huge companies that were struggling because of their woefully inadequate structures: DuPont, General Motors, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and Sears, Roebuck. As these companies grew larger and larger, their performance became weaker and weaker. With scale came inefficiency. The root cause, which Chandler shows with great skill, was precisely a lack of “genius for organization”.

What’s even worse for Ford was within 10 years of publishing his book, General Motors had raced far ahead of his own business. General Motors developed the organization-focused skill that Ford lacked. The operational and financial performance gap between the companies widened, strongly in GM’s favor. The “bent of mind” that Ford so proudly disparaged was very nearly the death knell of Ford Motor Company. 

Worse than the argument is the anti-intellectualism at its root

In a sense, the worst part of Ford’s argument isn’t the argument itself. The worst part is the anti-intellectualism that sits at its foundation.

Why do I label Ford’s comment anti-intellectual? Because the attack is of knowledge itself. The attack is directed at knowledge of organizational design.

Ford and I split completely on this level. The absolute worst cast scenario, for any given piece of knowledge, is that it’s useless. If you make the argument that expertise in organizational design is useless, then okay. We can have that debate.

But Ford isn’t making that claim. His claim is that knowing about organizational design makes you less valuable than if you had never known about organizational design to begin with. That’s why he calls that kind of knowledge “dangerous”. He claims it’s worse than useless. It’s actually harmful to your ability to run a successful business.

The real argument isn’t whether “genius for organization” is helpful or hurtful. The real argument is over how much expertise in organizational design is sufficient. How much is overkill? That’s the interesting debate. It would have been a much stronger reflection on Ford’s critical thinking in this area if he had posed that kind of question, rather than brushing aside the whole issue of structure with his anti-intellectual handwaving.

With all this said, I am still a big fan of Henry Ford

I want to close this post by saying, I respect a lot of what Henry Ford had to say. He was a smart dude. He obviously had tremendous success. And he was exceptionally generous in sharing his wisdom with the world.

At the same time, this particular claim of his was ridiculous. And it’s frustrating to hear some variant of it almost every month, almost 100 years after Ford’s book was published.

Of all the times I’ve heard someone complain about needless bureaucracy in the workplace, I can’t think of a single time that a helpful discussion ensued. It was just belly-aching for the sake of belly-aching, which gets old in a hurry.

I know that many modern businesses are over-engineered. We have too many people performing too few important tasks. People compete for visibility, and feel compelled to check various boxes just for the sake of checking boxes. Organizations are so collectively risk-averse that they have needless protocols and policies that stifle inspiration and creativity.

With all of that said…so what? What are we going to do about it? What’s specifically going wrong? And what specific remedy is available?

Those are the interesting questions. They require a lot more thought, and a lot more vulnerability, than just absent-mindedly moaning about the way things are. It’s sad to see Henry Ford fall into that lazy trap.

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