My Forty Years with Ford by Charles Sorensen is a must read for anyone who is interested in learning about the early days of the Ford Motor Company and the very beginnings of Lean thinking. Charles Sorensen was with Henry Ford from the very beginning of the Ford Motor Company until nearly the end of World War II and shortly before Ford’s death in 1947.
The son of Danish immigrants, Charles Sorensen began his professional career as a pattern maker, mainly for stove manufacturers and with only a mild interest in automobiles. He went to work for Ford as a patternmaker in 1905 and quickly developed a relationship with Henry. Sorensen states that what really ingratiated him to Henry Ford was his ability to put ideas into three dimensions. Despite being mechanically gifted, Ford could not read spec sheets nor was he much of a draftsman and appreciated Sorensen’s ability to produce a tangible model so that he could understand someone else’s concept as well as being able to put into physical form the ideas that Ford himself had a hard time conveying to others. In this way, Sorensen became Henry Ford’s man and the closest thing that Ford had to a friend and confidant, aside from his wife.
Sorensen provides a first-hand account to all of the milestones of the Ford Motor Company in the first half of the 20th century; battles between Ford and his investors over making luxury automobiles vs. Ford’s dream of creating a car for the average American, the beginnings of the Model T, the $5 day, the inception of the assembly line (Ford claimed it was inspired by the meat packing industry, Sorensen says that that story was made up for the press and that he and some assistants came up with the idea when questioning the logic behind taking parts from the parts storage to the production line rather than taking the production line to the parts), the manufacturing behemoth that is the River Rouge plant, and the Willow Run Bomber plant that eventually turned out one B-24 bomber per hour for the war effort. Sorensen is able to convey just how much of a hotbed for improvement Ford Motor Company was during its hay-day, constantly questioning why things must be done as they had been and striving for a better way of doing things. Sorensen says that one of Henry Ford’s mantras, which sounds like something straight out of Toyota Kata, was, “We must go ahead without the facts; we will learn them as we go along.”.
Along with all of the industrial accomplishments of the Ford Company, Sorensen also provides a fair account of Henry Ford the man from his simplistic lifestyle and genuine concern for farmers and desire to make an affordable automobile for the people while paying his workers an above average wage to his jealousy for anyone else who might steal the spotlight, his paranoia that FDR and the federal government were conspiring to take over his company, and his treatment of his only son Edsel, which Sorensen concludes above anything else led to Edsel’s death.
With its straightforward writing and first-hand information, I highly, highly recommend My Forty Years with Ford not just for those who are interested in industrial history but also for anyone who is interested in learning about the genesis of Lean.