Fordlandia: Unexpected change and transformations lessons from Henry Ford

We are all familiar with the concept of a formal Lessons Learned exercise at the end of a project. The idea is to do an honest review of how the project went: what went well, what didn’t go well, what we could have done better and any recommendations on what to change next time. If done well (i.e. honestly and with the facilitated participation of all key players and stakeholders involved in the project), this is an important learning opportunity. However, in my opinion, such an opportunity is nearly always wasted or at the very least diminished, after the lessons learned has been completed and any document signed off and filed. When it’s time to start  a new project (related or otherwise), how many practices mandate a review or research of previous performance or lessons learned as a key input into the project  or change and transformation initiative? If we are to believe that very few initiatives are 100% new (i.e. not tried by someone before) how many of us actively seek to research lessons from other similar projects and organisations in our industry or other industries before we commence? At the very least, we may be extremely surprised at what we might learn as part of our self development.

I recently undertook some research as preparation for a consultancy assignment and came across numerous fascinating articles of Henry Ford’s Fordlandia. Henry Ford’s model T car was first launched in 1908 and by 1914 a quarter of a million cars were being built each year. A key raw material for Henry’s production was rubber  and by the 1920’s Henry looked for an alternative source of rubber to bypass the British colonies monopoly of the product. With this in mind, he purchased 2.5 million acres of land (equivalent to approx 4% of the UK ) by the Tapajos river in the Amazon jungle, Brazil and from 1926, proceeded to transform this into a rubber plantation colony named Fordlandia. His vision was that Fordlandia would be an extension  of an idyllic mid-Western American town resplendent with:

  • American style architecture comprising of houses, a church, a school, a hospital and an imposing 50-meter high water tower, a key symbolism of Fordlandia.
  • American style modernised rubber plantation and workshops with quality control labs
  • American style work culture and work practices comprising:
    • American managers and management practices
    • Very well paid Brazilian locals as the non -managerial workforce
    • Loyalty incentives comprising free healthcare for workers and free education for their families – aimed at reducing turnover
    • 9am – 5pm working hours (inspite of the often 100 degree Fahrenheit heat at middays) and time clocks to oversee the clock-in and clock-out system
  • American style idyllic society and culture with:
    • Enforced teetotal rules to mirror the prohibition at the time in America, even though drinking was legal in Brazil
    • A regulation of “wholesome” leisure activities to include American country and square dances and exclude jazz and modern dance
    • A predominantly vegetarian diet  – to mirror that of Henry Ford’s
    • Cafeteria style lunch time practices

Inspite of the generous ‘loyalty incentives’, workers hated their environment. Turnover and absenteeism were high and in 1930, workers revolted (ostensibly against the American diet), had a massive riot and destroyed everything.  Managers had to flee into boats for their lives. When order was eventually restored by the Brazilian army, Henry Ford continued with his vision.

The rubber production didn’t fare better either. Henry Ford had ignored the views of experts that the land was hilly, rocky, infertile  and had more than its fair share of rubber eating insects and pests. He apparently didn’t trust experts and instead had an unwavering confidence in his own views and vision. Dense rubber seed planting practices continued unabated, resulting in a proliferation of the pests which ate the rubber trees.

In 1945, two decades after Fordlandia started, Henry Ford admitted defeat. The invention of synthetic rubber facilitated his decision to call it a day. He sold Fordlandia back to the Brazilian government for $250, 000 at a purported loss of $20m then. The project had been a financial  and cultural disaster.


Today, what’s left of Fordlandia  is currently inhabited by 3000 locals and their trade includes soya beans production, cattle ranching and some tourism.

Whereas no one will dare to export a colony from a country to another these days, there are still many lessons for the modern day business organisation. My particular favourites are on people and culture change:

  • Have a vision by all means, protect it and guard it. But be flexible on the implementation plan of the vision. Listen to a trusted body of individuals with diverse skills and specialisms. Be clear as to the ‘must-have’ and ‘could-have’ features of your vision and be prepared to adapt your overall plan to mitigate any risks identified for the ‘must-haves’. Also, be prepared to abandon the ‘could-haves’. Henry Ford’s ability to source cheap rubber for the production of his cars was the overwhelming ‘must have’. There were many options for this and sourcing from Brazil was arguably one option. Building a Fordlandia American colony was not a ‘must have’ and forcibly exporting American culture to Brazil was unnecessary.
  • Stakeholder engagement with the people who will be impacted with your vision has never gone out of fashion. You need to bring people along the change journey from day 1. Do not assume that you know what is good for them. Allow people some boundaries to make their own decisions and participate in the change and transformation design. Take heed that what you perceive as good or logical aspirations, intentions and incentives do not always translate as such.
  • The required culture change that underpins a transformation ( such as follows the introduction of new leaders, new vision, new working practices, or business and department mergers etc) takes time and needs to grow organically to replace the existing one. You can facilitate this growth but you cannot force it. Imposing or importing a new culture is at best insensitive and arrogant, and at worst, a disaster waiting to happen.
  • Two-way communication and feedback should be encouraged and its many facets should be closely and objectively analysed. Resistance, overt or covert is valuable feedback and should be treated as such and respected.
  • The full benefits of any initiative can only be realised once the underpinning people, process and cultural changes have become embedded in the day to day operations. It therefore makes perfect sense to put a specific focus on this in the business case as one of the major risks to the project. This ensures that business change is not left as a bolt on activity somewhere downstream. Making change stick should still be one of the yardsticks for measuring success.

There are of course many other lessons from the Fordlandia case which continue to be relevant today, irrespective of industry. What are yours? Do you agree that a formal and mandated lessons learned input from within and outside of an organisation and industry where relevant, at the start of each change project, would serve to increase the chances of a successful outcome for everyone?

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