Case | HBS Case Collection | August 2013 (Revised November 2013)

Ford vs. GM: The Evolution of Mass Production (A)

by Willy Shih

Abstract

This case explores the very different paths taken by the Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation in the first three decades of the twentieth century. Henry Ford's Model T was a car for the masses. After considerable experimentation, Ford Motor perfected a mass production system that converted the vast majority of jobs in the factory into routine tasks. It pioneered the moving assembly line, and it pursued processes that became increasingly integrated and mechanized. While its single-minded focus on cost minimization led to spectacular market success for a time, the resulting inflexibility made it difficult for the company to respond to market changes. This created an opportunity for General Motors and others, particularly in the face of technological shifts to closed-body designs and metal stamping technology, as well as the marketing-led idea of the annual model change.

The case offers a setting to examine several frameworks: exploration versus exploitation, the emergence of dominant designs, and vertical integration versus transaction costs and supplier hold-up. The (A) case closes with the question of what GM should do about supplier Fisher Body. The (B) case summarizes the shift to all-steel body stamping and engine manufacturing as the core technologies for automobile production, and how these changes made it difficult for Ford to maintain its first-mover advantage.

Keywords: innovation; Exploration; dominant design; Vertical Integration; Business Growth and Maturation; Business History; Innovation and Management; Innovation Strategy; Technological Innovation; Leading Change; Growth and Development Strategy; Product Positioning; Product Design; Product Development; Business Strategy; Corporate Strategy; Vertical Integration; Auto Industry; Manufacturing Industry; Michigan;

Citation:

Shih, Willy. "Ford vs. GM: The Evolution of Mass Production (A)." Harvard Business School Case 614-010, August 2013. (Revised November 2013.)