Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Prophet of Quality

Henry Martyn Leland was quality before quality was cool. Born near Barton, Vermont, in 1843, this mechanically-gifted farm boy soon fled the fields and proceeded to assemble a stellar “mechanic’s resume,” roughly equivalent today to someone having worked for IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Google.   Starting as a machinist in a company that manufactured power looms for America’s booming textile industry, he was employed during the Civil War at the cutting-edge United States Armory at Springfield, Massachusetts, moved to the world-renowned Colt Revolver Factory in Hartford, Connecticut, and spent time with Brown and Sharpe Manufacturing Company in Providence, one of the finest toolmakers in the world.  By the time he arrived in the automobile industry at the turn of the twentieth century, and specifically as general manager of an upstart brand called Cadillac, he had emphatic views on what made for manufacturing quality.

Leland must have cut quite a figure, more like a Biblical prophet than entrepreneur and mechanic.  He was full-bearded, slim and angular, cantankerous and autocratic--a God-fearing boss who opposed drinking and smoking, and held regular prayer meetings in his factories.  I don’t know if he ate locust, but he strikes me as John the Baptist with a set of calipers tucked in his hairshirt.

Leland’s specialty became precision interchangeable parts, helping improve the uniformity achieved in the days of Eli Whitney from 1/32 of an inch to Cadillac’s demand for 1/100,000 of an inch.  When our friend Alfred Sloan (see In Praise of the Introverted Entrepreneur) failed to deliver uniform bearings, he was called on the carpet by an angry Leland.  It made a huge impression on the young, embarrassed (and soon to be) World’s Most Famous CEO.   “I was an engineer and a manufacturer,” Sloan later wrote, “and I considered myself conscientious.  But after I had said good-bye to Mr. Leland, I began to see things differently.  I was determined to be as fanatical as he in obtaining precision in our work.”

In 1908, Leland’s obsession with precision stunned the manufacturing world and cemented the Cadillac brand.  On February 29th at the Brooklands race track near London, the Royal Automobile Club sponsored a Standardization Test for automobiles.  While any manufacturer was welcome, only Cadillac had the courage to enter.  

Brooklands Race Track, circa 1926
Three Cadillacs were provided out of stock on hand and completely disassembled, the parts for the cars mixed up.  Then 89 parts were removed and replaced with identical parts from stock.  Next, workmen armed with only wrenches, hammers, screwdrivers and pliers reassembled the cars from their mixed parts, essentially creating three new, if mismatched Cadillacs.  

Not only did each car start and run perfectly, but the three continued to work flawlessly after being driven for 500 miles around the track.  

In 1909 Cadillac was awarded the Dewar Trophy, permanently establishing its reputation for excellence.  This showing by Leland, Sloan later declared, did more to establish the reputation of American cars than any other single event.  By the 1920s, Sloan was applying Leland’s fanaticism across all of GM.  For some 50 years, everyone who was anyone copied GM.  

Leland, who in 1917 founded the Lincoln Motor Company (after the first president for whom he cast a vote), made the way straight for others--but even he could not have predicted the impact his obsession would have on the rest of the world.

(For a fascinating post on Leland's legacy and grave, see Note to Lincoln: If Your Heritage Really Means Something, Restore Henry Leland's Grave.)