Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.2 The organisational context

Managers employ staff to achieve a set of objectives, but how do we ensure these objectives are pursued? It is the role of managers to establish the conditions, structures and processes required to ensure their employees’ efforts are directed towards the achievement of objectives, at all levels and in all departments.

There is a wide range of options available that managers might choose from in seeking to ensure that work is coordinated and directed towards the appropriate aims. These range from the policy of selecting and employing the most appropriate kinds of individuals and then giving them autonomy and trusting them to deliver, through to command and control systems that remove all worker autonomy and specify all tasks and actions, continuously monitoring compliance and performance. Most of us work in organisations that lie somewhere between these extremes.

At the beginning of the 20th century Henry Ford transformed manufacturing by reorganising work. His methods, which have become known as Fordism,removed virtually all autonomy from the workers on the production lines. Henry Ford and his colleagues devised not only a system of flowline mass productionthat revolutionised productivity, but also a system of command and control that revolutionised work and its management.

Activity 2 The Fordist approach

Using the embedded video or link below, watch the following clip to get a sense of one extreme end of the control paradigm.

As you watch, ask yourself the question:

  • Is Fordism merely of historical interest, or does it have relevance and even parallels today?

If you are reading this course as an ebook, you can access this video here: Ford and Taylor Scientific Management (Edited) (YouTube, 2010) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Transcript of Fordism Video

In 1908, one man’s vision would change manufacturing and create a new market. Henry Ford set out to make the simplest car ever: a car for rural America, a 20th century equivalent of the horse and buggy. To produce the Model T cheaply, Ford knew he had to change the way cars were built. That meant changing the way his workers worked.
As he reorganised his factory to turn out Model Ts, he was influenced by the efficiency expert, Frederick Taylor. Taylor complained that, ‘hardly a workman can be found who doesn’t devote his time to studying just how slowly he can work’. And then he devoted his life to speeding them up.
When Taylor was brought in, he first timed the workers with stopwatches and noted their every movement. In a famous experiment at an ironworks, he reorganised a worker named Schmidt. Previously, Schmidt had hand-carried 12 tons of pig iron a day up from a wagon. After Taylor rearranged things, the tolerant Mr Schmidt found himself carrying 47 tons, and production had been raised 300 per cent.
Called into an office, Taylor helped the world’s fastest typist type even faster. The new world record of 150 words a minute was achieved by Margaret Owen, and Taylor claimed much of the credit.
At Ford’s factory, Taylorism meant dividing automobile production into simple, repetitive steps. There would be no need for skilled craftsman with years of apprenticeship. Men could learn to do any job quickly. A trained wheel-right no longer made each wheel in its entirety. Wheel-making was broken down into almost 100 steps, done by different men at different machines. It was much faster, but workers could still complete only 200 cars a day, so in 1913, Ford introduced his most revolutionary change yet.
Ford film narrator
In those days, each car was built from the frame up on stationary, wooden horses.
The Ford Motor Company filmed a re-enactment of how Henry Ford first tried out his new idea.
Ford film narrator
Henry Ford watched them for a while, then he had an inspiration. Instead of moving the men past the cars, why not move the cars past the men? So on one hot August morning, they tried it that way. A husky young fella put a rope over his shoulder, and Henry Ford called, ‘Let’s go’. And at that very moment, as the workmen began to fasten the parts onto the slowly moving car, the assembly line was born.
Soon assembly lines were up and running in Ford’s factory. The lines became the key to mass production, a system that would remain virtually unchanged for most of the century. A network of tiny conveyors was used to deliver parts to an exact point on the line. The workers became an integral part of a great machine and management set the pace without discussion or negotiation, for unions were forbidden.
The men faced new pressure as the final assembly line beat out the rhythm for the whole factory. There was no way that they could stop or slow it down. Few stood the pace and din for long. Men tried it for a few weeks, then quit. But Ford had an answer. The company was making record profits. The time taken to build each car had dropped to 1½ hours, so he could afford to raise pay. When he announced he was doubling wages to the unheard level of $5 a day, the factory was besieged with applicants.
Other car makers adopted the Ford method. Ford’s recipe: mass production, low costs, high wages, was creating not only cheap cars but well paid workers. Above all, it was the constant supply of new men arriving in Detroit that made it possible.
The company set the terms. If they worked fast and obeyed orders, they got the wages. It was a game for which Ford made the rules simple but strict – high pay for hard work.
Former Ford worker (unnamed in YouTube clip)
Well, what Mr Ford wanted from his workers was a good day’s work on the shift. Go home, eat and go to bed, and you would save your strength and get up and give him a good day the next day. That was, that just pops in my mind, and it is the truth.
Ford’s private security force, the Plant Protection Service, kept discipline. Anyone who recruited for the unions was fired. Company spies kept a lookout for those considered to be troublemakers. Workers on the ‘rouge lines’ had never had job security. Now those lucky enough still to have jobs became increasingly powerless.
David Moore, Ford foundry worker, 1932
You couldn’t even talk to guys on the job. Not to let the foreman see you, there’d be whispering going on and whatnot. My friend of mine was fired three times, a guy by the name of John Gallo, for smiling. If you went to the bathroom, you had to get permission from your supervisor. And if you was in there for three or four minutes, you would have one of the Service guys, if you had to use the bathroom to relieve your bowels, he would come up and put his foot where you flush, and he would say ‘Stand up!’ And if when you stand up there was wasn’t something in that toilet, out you go!
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


While the video clip is clearly historical and focused on one industry, you may be able to spot its relevance to the present day and to other sectors. Perhaps you have had the experience of telephoning a customer services helpline and talking to someone in a call-centre who has a script to work from and cannot answer any question that is not in their script.

As with Fordism, such call-centres are based on the idea that complex tasks can be sub-divided into small components that can be undertaken by staff with minimum training. This reduces the need to employ highly skilled workers who have a thorough understanding of the whole product, process or system, and allows managers a large amount of control over the employees’ work.

In Fordist terms, highly skilled workers have the disadvantage that their knowledge and expertise gives them a degree of power and autonomy – indeed they may know more than their bosses and as a result may gain control over decision making. In contrast, the production-line worker, who only knows how to complete one simple operation, is easily replaced and lacks the ‘expert power’ that is conferred by the possession of skills or knowledge.

Ford’s organisation of work was extremely efficient and, while management practices have evolved since the early 20th century, there are many similar examples existing today. These issues of control, worker autonomy and the coordination of complex processes are central to management and the role of the manager.