150 Years On: Learning From Henry Ford

150 Years On: Learning From Henry Ford

by Ben Thompson


Few people have done more to shape the modern age than Henry Ford – industrialist, innovator and master of the pithy soundbite.

Indeed, whatever you feel about Ford – and he is a somewhat divisive figure –there’s no denying his impact on both business thinking and the world we live in. Whether it’s revolutionising the manufacturing process, bringing urban mobility to the masses or pioneering the concept of welfare capitalism, Ford casts a pretty big shadow.

So today, on the 150th birthday of this captain of industry, we take a look at four of Ford’s greatest one-liners and what we can learn from them. And just for good measure, we’ve also thrown in some clips from the MeetTheBoss TV archives to show how other business leaders have approached similar challenges.

Think outside the (horse)box

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” 

Often cited as evidence that the customer knows nothing, or as a call to ‘invent the future’, Ford’s most famous (perhaps apocryphal) statement can in fact be read as paean to visionary problem-solving – taking a need/want (to travel faster) and providing a solution (a cheap, mass-produced automobile) that exceeds the somewhat limited vision of potential users. The genius lies in having the vision to provide something the customer didn’t even know was possible.

Hear Whirlpool European President Bracken Darrell on how to create an innovative culture.

Be a doer, not just a thinker

“Vision without execution is just hallucination”

Ford didn’t invent the automobile; he didn’t even invent the assembly line. But what he did do was industrialise his vision of America as a nation of car owners. In doing so, he didn’t just focus on the product, but on the entire process of creating a car and taking it to the mass market – everything from design to logistics to staffing to marketing. Many great ideas never get off the ground because they lack a strategy for turning dream into reality.

Lego CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp talks about the importance of strategy implementation and executing on a business plan.

Do the right thing

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking”

Why should customers engage with your business? Because they trust you to deliver on your brand promise. When you focus on providing a quality product, service or experience – when trust exists between company and customer – your business will thrive. But quality isn’t just about execution; it’s also about culture. Quality should be a mindset. It should be a habit. It should be self-reinforcing. And everyone in your company needs to buy into its importance.

Listen to Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann on the importance of being a brand ambassador – even when you’re off-duty.

Keep going!

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”

Failure is a friend to all would-be inventors or entrepreneurs, and there’s no doubt Ford viewed failure as an essential part of the journey towards success – provided you learn from the experience. In his world, the “only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing”. Whether it’s constant improvement or learning when to cut your losses, failure will empower you to find alternative solutions, refine your ideas, recalibrate your approach and forge ahead.

Hear how Patrick Doyle, CEO of Domino’s Pizza, embraced negative customer feedback about products and used it to transform his company’s fortunes.



Ben Thompson
Editor and Presenter at MeetTheBoss TV

As a journalist, editor and now presenter at MeetTheBoss TV, Ben has been writing and speaking about the intersection between business, people and technology for the past 15 years. In a career that’s taken him from working for consumer music and style mags to Editor-in-Chief of Business Management magazine – via work for the likes of The Guardian, Frost & Sullivan and Bloomberg, amongst others – he’s interviewed some of the biggest names in business, spoken at international events and moderated countless roundtable discussions.