Despite the many painful impressions of little plastic bricks my bare feet have recorded over the years, I still love Legos. When my kids were younger, they would spend hours building simple houses, cars, animals, robots and more. The blocks offered countless imaginative possibilities. Now, the boys have taken to working with sophisticated Lego kits that can be used to make working robots or reproduce architectural wonders such as the Empire State Building.
When I was a kid, Lego was just a toy company. But now there are theme parks, video games and even top-grossing feature-length movies all centered around the brand. What business does a toy company have making movies? A $23 billion business, it turns out.
"Brick by Brick: How Lego Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry," by David C. Roberston, writing with Bill Breen, is an entertaining and mostly fast-paced study of the Lego Group's approach to innovation and its initial rise, fall and subsequent rebirth.
While the majority of the book explores the company's failing health over the past 10 years and its glorious recovery, the history of the toy itself and the small glimpses into the founding family are what I found most engaging. The book contains a few glossy photos of both early and modern toys, some of which I remember fondly from my own childhood.
The authors tell how Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish master carpenter, toy maker and perfectionist, started the company in 1932. The first Legos were made of wood and the word Lego comes from two Danish words, "leg godt," which mean "play well." As a widower with four young children, Ole was devoted to the idea of inspiring lifelong creativity. His devotion is reflected in the company's mission statement today: "To inspire and develop builders of tomorrow."
In the 1950s, Christiansen's son Godtfred developed play systems that drove the company's success. He also perfected the locking mechanism in the bricks. Previously they would lock only for a short time and then whatever structure a child created would pop apart. After years of experiments, Godtfred hit upon the stud-and-tube coupling system we know today. Lego then expanded globally under Godtfred's son Kjeld from the 1970s to the early 2000s,. Lately, Lego factories have been churning out more than five times as many bricks annually as there are people on the planet. In 2010 alone, they produced roughly 36 billion bricks.
The company's financial crisis began in 2004 when a new management company was brought in to improve efficiency and innovation, leading to a loss of control of various departments and a breakdown in communication. The company branched into so many different markets and ventures that many departments were cut off from the main leadership and no one tried to ensure that the efforts were profitable or even whether they had anything to do with Lego.
Its story is basically a cautionary tale about innovating without any real goal in mind. The turnaround to success came when the company began to focus less on grandiose ideas and more on reconnecting with its core values.
The book is an easy read, despite containing a fair amount of business jargon. I found myself nodding off during a few of the chapters relating to management techniques and growth projections. Though mainly intended for business people, the book is fascinating for Lego fans as well. Even my kids read parts of it. They happily skipped past the profit and loss information, and focused on the variety in the Lego world and the inspirational story of a toy-making family that never quit.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.