Millennials, Ford, Toyota and Google

Many organisations continue to be concerned with how they will manage millennials – the generation of employees that were born between the early 1980s and the mid 1990s. While it is clearly inaccurate to ascribe all people born between these dates with the same characteristics, it is thought that this generation, along with generations that came before them, have particular aspects that differentiate them, that are especially impacted by three factors: the economy, how they were parented and technology. Millennials are thought to be “special”, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured and achieving and it is often thought that these traits make them difficult to manage.

This post is based on understanding that different workplaces themselves have different characteristics that will affect the experience that non-millennial employees and managers have with millennials and the experience of the millennials themselves. We will discuss three workplace types – many other types exist but our discussion here will illustrate the impact that different environments might have, with a focus on a traditional workplace such as the Ford production line of the 20th century, Toyota, with its lean manufacturing approach and Google.

All organisations have implicit or explicit norms that determine how people in the organisation are managed. These norms have been the subject of much discussion in business schools and elsewhere for many years. Douglas McGregor’s early work in this area drew attention to the assumptions that are made about human motivation in determining these norms. If a manager believes that most people are basically lazy, they will manage them to get them to work in spite of this, often through creating an environment dominated by fear. If a manager believes that people are capable of more positive motivation, taking an active interest in and achieving fulfillment from their work, then they will manage them accordingly.

Workplaces based on the assumption that people were basically lazy were commonplace for much of the twentieth century in the developed world. Ford’s pioneering work in this area, along with the work study expert Fredrick Taylor, led to the creation of the first factory that applied “scientific management” – the careful study and design of work to maximise the performance of the lazy worker, including the design of factory production systems.

The Human Relations school challenged this approach. They argued that employees wanted to be fulfilled in their work and jobs could be designed to do this, which would result in higher levels of productivity. Further, they argued that Ford’s scientific management approach was very unpleasant to work in which itself led to weaker organisational performance. However, the new approaches adopted were usually confined to changes to the way that people were managed – they didn’t challenge the production system itself and the results that they achieved were mixed.

Toyota’s Production System has been very successful. Toyota has grown to become a very powerful player in the automotive world and other companies have tried to copy their methods. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the details of the technical production system but the following video provides background:

It is sufficient to understand that Lean production systems (as the Toyota approach is often described) rely on employees who are more highly motivated and involved in continuous improvement, while also are highly disciplined in their adherence to the rules of the production system. The two principles of Toyota’s approach to managing people that are most frequently cited are Respect for People and Continuous Improvement.

Writers have attempted to describe the various approaches to managing people that are outlined here. One  categorisation calls Ford’s approach Theory X, the Human Relations approaches, Theory Y and the Toyota approach, Theory Z.

Thus far this discussion has highlighted the relationship between different production systems and the management of people. Specific production systems operate alongside specific approaches to managing the people who work in them. The relationship that exists here may be thought to be important in the performance that the system will achieve.

While, various approaches to managing people within specific systems may be possible, some will work better than others within specific systems. For example, the Ford production system is based on the assumption that people are lazy. Attempting to implement a management approach that adopts a more positive view of human nature may not yield positive results if the system itself is not modified. Similarly, a Theory X approach to managing people in Toyota is likely to cause significant problems as employees become demotivated and reduce their involvement in and commitment to continuous improvement. The Toyota system depends on more willing participation.

We will now introduce generational theory – the idea that different generations have different characteristics which will influence their motivation at work. If different production systems are based on different theories of human motivation then changes in the motivational characteristics of employees may create different issues in different production systems. Management of millennials at Ford may have different challenges than those which exist at Toyota.

Much has been written about the characteristics that the various generations display at work. It is argued that the conditions that the different generations have grown up in have been significantly different and that these have often influenced the orientations of their personalities. The following table summarises commonly expressed views of the traits of different generations at work:


At work, these influences are thought to create particular traits that managers should take into account. When we consider the varying organisational norms and production systems, different generational work traits will be more or less beneficial in different systems. Generational characteristics that might be a negative factor in one production system may be more positive in another.

The management approach that should be taken to millennials is therefore argued to be dependent on the production system that they are working in. In the Toyota Production System it will be appropriate to manage them differently than at Ford. At Toyota, the millennials are likely to be more suited to teamwork and continuous improvement due to their preference for a collaborative environment, innovation and their desire to influence the place in which they work. Their higher levels of respect for older generations who respect them and the high value that they place on training should also be especially beneficial at Toyota. The following table shows the characteristics of different work environments:


The greater need for process discipline at Toyota as compared with Ford is the area where more attention may be necessary for Toyota managers. Millennials value flexibility and the ability to decide on how they will achieve work objectives, more highly than other generations. Careful explanation of the need for discipline and an emphasis on the opportunities to contribute to continuous improvement and for personal growth may help here.

Millennials value support from mentors, feedback on their performance (a strength of the Toyota system) opportunities for career development and to be challenged in the work that they do. Toyota’s emphasis on respect for employees and positive working relationships may make it easier for mentorship to be provided. Career development may be more difficult, with promotion being dependent on company need. However, provision of training opportunities that prepare employees for future career advancement at Toyota or elsewhere may help here.

The third work environment that is considered here is that of an information technology company. We usually believe that technology companies place a higher value on creativity and innovation and are characterised by a more flexible work environment. This may imply that an environment can more easily be created that will be attractive to millennials. Our previous discussion has highlighted their preference for these aspects.

Millennials also value other workplace features too though. They expect more feedback and mentorship and value a stable work environment which may feature less in a technology company.

This post has considered the management of millennials. It has argued that different production systems and organisational requirements will require different approaches to the management of millennials.  It has also argued that different workplaces may be more suited to millennials than others. the characteristics of the Toyota workplace may be more suited to millennials than those at Ford.



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