Any user guide, as long as it’s black

At last week’s UAEurope conference (and in this season’s Communicator magazine), Dr. Tony Self suggested how car manufacture can be an allegory for the technical communication profession.

Henry Ford revolutionised car manufacture when his production line replaced the method where cars were hand-made by artisans. Famously, Henry Ford offered the Model T in “any colour… so long as it is black”.

There are parallels in technical communication. Many technical communicators are still clinging to hand-crafted documentation, creating custom layouts and “tweaking” formatting, when new modular methods are vastly more efficient. The age of offering documents in any “colour” the customer wants is over. And just as car manufacture has long since moved to automation, technical communication too must embrace automation, with XML providing the technology platform to make this possible.

I think there is even more we can learn from car manufacturers.

While the Model T was initially a success, Ford was slow to replace it with a new model, and by 1930 the company had been overtaken by General Motors. Ford, had, in effect, created a very efficient process for creating something that almost nobody wanted.  The process was inflexible and it took them a year to introduce the successor, the Model A. So perhaps, technical communicators need to make sure what they produce efficiently is what their customers actually want.

In addition to learning from Alfred P. Sloan (the head of General Motors at the time), we can also learn from today’s car manufacturing processes. Today, many manufacturers use Lean manufacturing. Lean focuses on stripping out waste – if something does not add value to the customer, then it is eliminated. In other words, Technical Communicators need to quantify and demonstrate the value of their documentation to the customer, if they want to use car manufacturing as their model for the future.


Tony Self

In programming architecture, there are said to be four design rules: simplicity favours regularity, smaller is faster, make the common case fast, and good design demands good compromises. The last rule seems to strike a chord; we need to develop skills at recognising good compromises.

Meghashri Dalvi

Car manufacturers succeed ONLY when they listen to customer needs. When shall we learn to listen?

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