An Assembly Line of Innovations

Henry Ford
Henry Ford

A great way to innovate is to take an idea from another place and apply it in your field. Take as an example the assembly line. Henry Ford (1863 – 1947) is often credited with the innovation of the assembly line in mass manufacturing and he was the first to use it in automobile manufacture. However, Ford got the idea from an abattoir. A Ford executive, William Klann, was impressed with the efficiency of the Swift slaughterhouse in Chicago where carcasses were butchered as they moved along a conveyor.   In 1913 at the age of 50 Ford introduced the assembly line process into his car factory and productivity improved eight-fold. Soon it became common practice in factories around the world.

Ray Kroc (1902 – 1984) adopted the idea and applied it to the restaurant business when he ran the McDonald’s chain. In 1961, at the age of 58, he bought the McDonald brothers restaurant business for $2.7m. He applied the assembly line principle to hamburger preparation and transformed productivity and speed of service in restaurants. McDonald’s Corporation is now the world’s largest hamburger chain with over 35000 outlets worldwide and a turnover of $28B.

An Indian ophthalmologist, Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy (1918 – 2006), admired the McDonald’s approach and decided to try a similar method for the treatment of cataracts in India. At the age of 58 and despite being crippled with rheumatoid arthritis, he founded the Aravind Eye Hospital at Madurai in India. He trained paramedics to do 70% of the work required in each surgery freeing up doctors to perform the more demanding tasks. He brought assembly line thinking to the process and reduced the cost of each cataract operation to around $10 (compared to say $1600 in the USA). Each surgeon carries out some 2600 operations a year (compared to 250 in most other hospitals and countries). Seventy % of the operations are performed at no charge to the patients.

An idea from a slaughterhouse transformed car assembly, fast food restaurants and eye surgery.  Two lessons are apparent.  The best way to find really effective and radical ideas for your business is not to look at competitors but to look for similar problems in entirely different fields. Secondly it is worth noting that all three of the characters in this story were in their 50s when they achieved their innovation breakthroughs. Age is no barrier for the innovative leader.


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