One of the most revolutionary and profitable ideas ever, assembly-line production, was pioneered and perfected by Henry Ford, and the Ford Motor Company. It enabled a mainly unskilled labor force to produce cheap reliable automobiles, and produce them faster than ever before thought possible. Thanks to the assembly line, there are over 600 million cars on the road today.
And at least half of that number are packed onto Sunset Boulevard for my morning commute. I drive one mile but it takes me 20 minutes. I’d get there faster on a mule.
You see, I live in Hollywood, and I make flash websites for The Movies. And we make those websites under intense deadline pressure, with very demanding clients. So the management of these agencies are always putting pressure on us developers to optimize, to reuse, to templatize, to scrum, spiral, waterfall whatever our way to higher output and lower cost.
They want to turn the ad agency into a production line, and as a result, start seeing Henry Ford sized profit.
And hey, why not, right? I mean look at wordpress. Or Joomla, Or Drupal, or whatever. You just dress up the design and blammo – product done, right? Exactly!
There are a lot of areas of development and software design that work a bit like making cars: WordPress etc is like the model T. Affordable to everyone. A triumph of ingenuity, and engineering.
But, let me switch back for a second and talk about Ford Motor company. They make cars. They make trucks. They make SUVs. Did you know they made planes?
Right. Planes. Airplanes.
But the operative word here is made. not make. Ford doesn’t make airplanes. But they made them. And here is where our story gets interesting, for Ford and for interactive advertising agencies.
During World War II, the United States economy underwent a startling transformation. The machinery of a peaceful and largely rural America, was rapidly retooled to equip and deploy a massive mechanized army, and an air force capable of fighting two wars simultaneously, on opposite sides of the world.
One of our most potent weapons was our highly advanced factory production. The automated production lines of American factories turned out cars, trucks, jeeps, munitions, uniforms and more at an astonishing speed.
But for the large part the aviation industry did not adopt modern assembly line techniques.
"Although several countries produced large numbers of aircraft during the war, the aircraft industry stuck to traditional workbench production methods due to the products they were creating: aircraft are complicated and often delicate machines that require extreme precision and care in assembly. Furthermore, at the time airplanes were constructed mainly from traditional materials, such as wood and fabric, that were difficult to adapt to the automobile industry’s new techniques." (Source: Jalopnik.com)
Ford tried hard to make planes the same way it made Model T’s. In in a large sense, they did. But in a larger sense it was a failure. By the end of the war, they had produced over 8000 Liberator Bombers for the government. But the transition from making cars to making bombers was finally judged a failure. At the end of the war, ford and all of the other assembly line manufacturers got out of the airplane business, and stayed out.
Why? What makes planes so much harder? How different is making a jeep from making a bomber? It turns out very different. If you want to get into the details, check out this great blog post. But the quick answer is, aircraft are very very complicated. Their assembly requires skilled, highly competent labor.
By contrast, cars can be assembled by people in a factory with a 3rd grade proficiency in reading.
Airplanes require a more precise tooling as well. Margins of error, and rates of failure that are completely fine for a car, would be catastrophic in an aircraft. Add to mix, that the demands of the military in wartime are extreme, and fast changing. In fact as a client, they are probably almost as demanding as movie studios.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
To build an airplane, you need a highly skilled workforce. And you need an extreme attention to detail. You have to be precise, and you need to be able to make changes easily, without retooling a factory. To this very day, even the most advanced fighters and even jumbo jets, are almost entirely built by hand. It is still the best and most economical way to build airplanes.
Coming in for a landing:
So naturally I see this as a parallel to our own industry. I’ve managed the development department of more than one Entertainment Advertising Agency in LA. And I’ve tried it all. Components, code libraries, Scrum (isn’t that what they call the leftovers from a bris?) rapid prototyping, frameworks, refactoring, templates, scaffolding, it goes on and on.
And for every methodology I’ve tried, I’ve watched tiny two person boutiques out-perform and out-deliver bigger more established shops. I’ve even seen a few agencies lose their shirts trying to scale out based on these assembly line techniques.
But this is why the Ford story is so compelling and interesting. Because it points out what is wrong in our thinking about our product. And it gives us hope that we capitalize on a few key points to make kick-ass sites. We need to look away from the automated, assembly line techniques that are very successful in manufacturing and software development.
We need to own up to the fact that our product, while sometimes formulaic, is not a wordpress, a Joomla, an iWeb page.
Our product is complex. It requires the most skilled workforce we can find. And it needs to remain hand-made from scratch, beginning to end every time. We need to concentrate not on reuse, rules, and processes, but on finding workers who have enough skill to tackle the complexity of these sites. Designers with a nose for technology. Technologists who use code to make art. And Account people and managers who live and breath both the entertainment industry and the Internet.
Because our clients are demanding, and the changes will always come rapid fire. And an assembly line approach to making movie websites, will never fly.