Transferring Fordism:
The First Phase of the Overseas
Diffusion and Adaptation of
Ford Methods, 1911-1939

Steven Tolliday

University of Leeds, UK


Recent years have seen numerous attempts to transfer best practice Japanese industrial principles to Western economies. Although the precise nature of those 'industrial principles' remains controversial, mainstream thought among industry, academics and government has stressed the imperative of learning from them, either through direct Japanese investment or through imitation by Western companies.

For some of the most sanguine advocates of the new system such as James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos, the message is simple: "Lean production is a superior way for humans to make things.......It follows that the whole world should adopt lean production, and as quickly as possible". In the early 20th century, these authors argue, Fordism provided a similar universally superior system of production. However, its transfer to the rest of the world was bungled and mishandled with unfortunate results. Comparing the transfer of Fordism with the current transfer of 'lean production' methods from Japan they conclude: "Early in this century, most Europeans were unable to differentiate the universal ideas and advantages of mass production from their unique American origins. As a result, ideas of great benefit were rejected for a generation. The great challenge of the current moment is to avoid making such an error twice.

This essay examines the attempts by the Ford Motor Company to transfer its methods to its British operations, its largest European subsidiary in the interwar years. It looks at the feasibility and desirability of transferring Fordism in this period and reaches conclusions almost diametrically opposite to those of Womack, Jones and Roos. This conclusion, it will later be suggested, also casts doubt on their approach to the contemporary transfer of 'lean production'.

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Transferring Fordism: The First Phase of the Overseas
Diffusion and Adaptation of Ford Methods, 1911-1939

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