Ask or Do?

By Marianne Fellowes. Marianne, from Suffolk, shares her opinions on Henry Ford and his take on "faster horses". Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

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

In this quote Henry Ford implies that people do not know what is best for themselves.  An American industrialist, innovator, entrepreneur and founder of the Ford Motor company, he did not invent the car to replace slower forms of transport such as horses; he developed a way for the car to be affordable for all through cheaper production assembly line techniques.  ‘Fordism’, as it is now known, also brought about better wages and conditions for workers, and the idea that consumerism was a positive ideal.

Ford saw a problem that needed to be solved and got on with it, changing an expensive curiosity into a practical mode of conveyance – but was it a good solution for consumers?  It is interesting to consider what our world would have been like without the huge volume of cars on the roads today.  There would be less air pollution contributing to global warming and reduced noise.  It would have prevented the loss of green spaces, with miles of tarmacked impervious layers which have increased fluvial floods and the end of horrendous traffic jams, with definitely fewer deaths and injuries, although horse riding comes with its own risks and disadvantages.

Cars, although not always reliable, certainly allow us to travel farther than we would have imagined possible to work, or live, relax, visit or socialise. In short, they improve lives. Going only one generation back, my parents did not drive. They didn’t need to – everything they needed was within walking or cycling distance, and the work outings were by charabanc. If they were ill the local Doctor came with his bag and was multi-talented and trained to respond to all medical needs or emergencies.  They ate the produce in season locally, socialised with (and married) their immediate neighbours, and their children walked to school across the fields.  Today’s world would not function as it is without the availability and proliferation of vehicles, but modern day car manufacture and use will need to transform drastically again in the face of finite resources and to meet zero carbon targets, and horses do still provide a vital role and could do again in the future.

Although synonymous with wealth (images of the state golden carriages or heavy guns and rumbling cradles being pulled at ceremonial events, with rows of impeccably turned-out riders and their faithful mounts moving in perfect choreography), equine ownership crosses the class divide in that horses are also important for the Romany community and the Amish. From the Mounties to London’s Metropolitan Police, horses can access places where vehicles fail, and bring a certain status to their rider, towering above the running miners in the strikes, galloping at high speed, batons wielded. Horses were feared weapons and powerful transporters in earlier wars. They made a huge contribution to rural life; my late father had a trophy for the best furrows made with a horse and plough, and until recently four magnificent Suffolk Punches were a weekly sight delivering the dray of ales from a nearby brewery – all black and sweaty, their manes plaited and adored with colourful ribbons, white ankles gleaming.

There are still countries and islands that ban cars either at certain times (Israel on holy days) or permanently, such as Sark, which has a wonderfully tranquil and safe way of life. Both modes of transport require maintenance and care, even when not in use, and owners often spend hours grooming them! Cars can certainly indicate a level of power and stimulate an excitement that Ford himself would not have predicted, equalled by the finest racehorses in multi-million-pound stables.  It’s amusing that the specific power of a car or tractor – or any engine, in fact – is still referenced back to horses.

If Ford had consulted them, the public might not have asked for a car, and in the early days of production there was not the vast choice of models and colours that we expect today: choices which have probably come about through more willingness to seek consumer feedback in a way to ensure satisfaction. I wonder whether, if it was a different type of product, Ford would have been less dictatorial? Or is his quote an example of a stereotypical ‘male’ or an engineering perspective on problem solving? It is certainly not one of collaboration or inclusion. James Dyson was an engineer and frustrated customer who developed a completely mould-breaking innovative version in contrast to the model that was in current use, again, to solve a problem, but he listened to customer feedback on his prototypes and still does today.  Quite famously a crisp manufacturer has run a competition where consumers create their own bespoke flavours, with those receiving the highest public votes being added into the main range… now that is true willingness to ‘listen’ and a very clever strategy. Encouraging innovation is very brave as one risks pleasing nobody, rather than everybody, and if people are happy with the ordinary and the familiar, one might say: “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” But unlike Ford, they asked and were willing to accept the responses from their stakeholders, even if it was not what they would have thought of themselves!

I have both experienced and incorporated a ‘service user’ model in product/policy development personally and it did take longer, but the results, I believe, were stronger with the ‘buy in’ of others and prevented hurdles further along the journey.  ‘Putting the customer central to everything you do’ is the new mantra (except of course, currently in UK politics!). Those elected to represent our voices seem to think, like Ford’s quote, that they know better. In a sea of misinformation, although many made what they thought was an informed choice, the truth then came in a tsunami of broken promises, wave after wave of uncovered lies, and an iceberg of previously undeclared consequences.   We have learnt a whole new language of; ‘pirogue’, ‘back stop’, and ‘cliff edge no deal’, and grow increasingly weary of the impasse.

Perhaps Henry Ford did not ask the public because he did not trust their opinion or judgement, or genuinely thought they did not know what they were missing. Even referendums or a ‘peoples’ vote’ may not return a majority agreement or an answer which is possible to deliver. Sometimes we ask the wrong questions of even our closest friends and family or underestimate their desires.  Better understanding of the problem from a range of viewpoints (do the horses just need to be bred to go faster, or do we need to replace four legs entirely with an industrialized mechanism?) must improve any process. In failing to find a way forward we have created an additional set of problems that we need a modern-day Ford to fix; the horse is not only too slow for us to complete our journeys, but we will have to pay a King’s ransom to leave it in the stables and set off without it; not everyone would be able to travel freely without border checks, and if we don’t get an agreement soon we might lose the horse completely with no alternative transport!

Speaking of kings, the person who shouted out the truth that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ should have been part of the original consultation. The swindling tailors were able to convince the King because he blossomed in their false flattery and bought into the lie that only those who were superior would be able to see his new clothes – whereas a mere peasant in their youth and innocence was able to burst the bubble of pretence.  Are we willing to put our ‘heads above the parapet’ and became exposed and vulnerable to being shot down, or will we hide amongst the crowd, sheep-like following in the procession blindly towards the electric fence of the wrong solution? Will our politicians be brave enough to admit honestly that they can’t see the fine robes?  There is a blindness which comes with not listening to others with an open mind, or not really ‘looking’ with open eyes; others arrogantly believe they know what is best for us and what we need, but it may truly be what we want, and we often do not even know the difference ourselves.   Thank goodness that Santa does not adopt the Henry Ford approach and lists of wishes are still welcome, and that Gods receive prayers and supplications!

Henry Ford was very successful and he had a strength of character to believe in his own ideas, but it could have ended differently.  There is speculation that he did not say this quote. What he did say is “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own”, which is completely the opposite.

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