1908 Model T106 years ago today, the Ford Motor Company first offered the Model T for sale. The Model T wasn’t the first automobile – Nicolas Joseph Cugnot built a steam-powered “auto-mobile” in 1769 and Karl Benz the first gasoline powered automobile in 1886 – but the Model T was the first automobile designed to be sold to the average person. No longer were automobiles something only for the rich.

But the Model T illustrates several facets of being an entrepreneur that are often ignored:
• The Model T didn’t offer any features that others weren’t offering as well – it wasn’t a new invention.
• The Model T wasn’t the first automobile to be produced with the moving conveyor assembly line – that was the Olds.
• The Model T had its faults – any color as long as it’s black, anyone?
• The Model T didn’t include any new technologies – What it did include were technologies that delivered what was promised.

So why was the Model T the most influential car of the 20th Century? Because Henry Ford focused on what was the real problem – affordable, reliable transportation. In order to achieve that, he had to focus on creating a system of processes that would enable production of mass quantities at a low price. Henry Ford practiced Lean Manufacturing and Quality Management decades before the world would even learn to spell the words. It’s no secret that the Toyota Production System was based on the work of Henry Ford – the Toyota Company has publicly admitted that they got the ideas for lean manufacturing from Henry Ford.

One example was what Henry Ford did with the wood chips that resulted from the Model T manufacturing process. There were a lot of wood chips created and the usual response would be to burn the wood chips to power the boilers used in the factories – but there were too many so much of the wood chips would have ended up in dumps. But Henry Ford saw waste and asked, “What can be made from wood chips?” Give up? Henry Ford didn’t – he invented charcoal briquettes – and in the process created a whole new industry centered on the backyard barbecue.
Now, there were and are critics of the Model T and Henry Ford – he had a few character flaws – but it’s often the imperfect who see the opportunities and have the passion and determination to pursue them – and we are the ones who gain because we have more stuff, opportunities and wider horizons.

The story of the Model T reminds me of a scene from a miniseries on Christopher Columbus. Columbus is at a banquet celebrating his return from the New World and he’s sitting with a businessman, clergyman and a soldier. The three are discussing his voyage and in general dissing the achievement – it was obvious the world was round. Columbus picks up an egg and asks them to stand the egg on its end. The clergyman states that it’s impossible, to the business man it’s not worth the effort, and the soldier tries but fails. Columbus then takes the egg and hits it on the table, crushing the end so it stands and states, “Now anyone can do it.”

After Henry Ford, anyone could and would produce affordable automobiles.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.