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What Henry Ford can teach us about corporate culture

HR professionals today are more than familiar with the concept of corporate or organizational culture. You wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t. Executives openly ask if they have the right culture in place to meet their goals. Merger and acquisition analysts spend countless hours looking at how a new purchase will affect the corporate culture. A Google search for “organizational culture” brings back 12 million hits. Type in “corporate culture” and you get 48 million.  

Henry Ford never heard of corporate culture, and probably wouldn’t have cared much if he had. His job was producing automobiles. Yet as it turns out, culture did indeed mean something to Henry Ford, and we can learn from how he shaped his. 

The term “organizational culture” first appeared in print in 1979, 32 years after Ford’s death, in an academic paper studying a British boarding school. So Ford, Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan built some of the world’s largest and most successful companies without ever hearing that phrase. It’s a safe bet that they never spent a single minute agonizing with their board members about their company culture. (So long as we’re searching, google “Battle of Homestead” for one perspective on Andrew Carnegie’s ideas of company culture.) 

It’s not an entirely fair question, but if they didn’t obsess about organizational culture, why do we fret over it so much? 

In 1908, Henry Ford was determined to build a simple, reliable and affordable car; one the average American worker would be able to purchase. Now, Ford didn’t invent the car. His innovation was to build his new Model T on an assembly line to lower costs, but he didn’t invent the assembly line, either. 

What he did was clearly demonstrate his vision to his employees.  

Each line worker, watching them roll off the factory floor, could see how their job contributed to making affordable cars. Within four years, they had gotten so good at implementing Ford’s vision that he was able to drop the price by a third, from $875 to $575. Ford rewarded his employees with the first 40-hour work week and raised their pay to nearly twice the hourly rate of the average American worker at the time. 

Henry Ford’s simple idea gave his employees a shared vision and purpose. They were committed to making the world a better place by building a car anyone could own. The idea of an affordable car was so inspiring they improved the assembly line, making the Model T even more affordable. And they were rewarded with a shorter work week and more pay, quickly making Ford one of the best places to work in the country (at least by those metrics), further reinforcing their belief in their purpose. 

So, while Mr. Ford may have never heard the phrase “organizational culture,” he knew something about the power of a shared vision and the motivational impact of a common purpose. These are the very elements at the heart of a corporate culture. Employees can and will achieve incredible results when they’re inspired to action. That inspiration comes from clearly seeing how your company makes a difference, and understanding how your individual effort makes a difference, whether you’re gauging windshield aerodynamics or twisting a bolt on the line. 

Now, more than a century after first telling his employees they were going to build a car anyone could afford, Ford Motor Company is still one of the best-known and largest companies on the planet. The simple vision Ford shared literally reshaped the American landscape. Today, there are nearly 4 million miles of paved roads in the U.S. that didn’t exist when the folks at Ford were just trying to make an affordable car “in any color you want, so long it’s black.” That’s the world-changing power of a shared vision and purpose. 

You may or may not be looking to change the world at your company. But if you’re looking for ways to build a purposeful company culture, you could do a lot worse than to follow the example of a man who never heard of it. 

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