Brick By Brick: How Lego Rewrote The Rules Of Innovation And Conquered The Global Toy Industry, by David C. Robertson with Bill Breen
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Blogging For Books/Crown Business in exchange for an honest review.]
When I was a kid, I was precisely the sort of target customer for LEGO, but I have not had much cause to think of legos or be involved with the company that made them for about twenty years or so . When I saw the chance to review a book about one of my beloved childhood toys, I was curious to see what had changed the company from the rather conventional toy company of my youth to the multimedia empire it is now, with movies and board games and a whole host of other products that have become a cultural phenomenon. This curiosity was rewarded in a way that combined by own childhood memories, a thoughtful and honest exploration of LEGO history, an insightful and clever examination of business strategy, and a story full of quirky and humorous personal touches, such as a man whose struggle with taking medicine for a benign tumor led him to imagine an immensely successful set of toy robots.
For the most part, this book is structured as a chronological history. This provides the reader with a great deal of context about the culture of LEGO, as well as its gradual development over time, and its rise from a start-up company in a backwater part of Denmark to an international institution that is a peer of Mattel and Hasbro, and even compared to world-class companies like Apple and Nike. The story itself has a complicated novel-like arc: early success and resilience despite initial struggles (including a factory fire), a triumphant position, attempts to overcome stagnation of profits with reckless innovation that leads to near disaster, a grim struggle for survival in the faces of collapse, and a slow but steady rise to dominance again, filled with personal and product commentary, as well as insight that seeks to provide help to executives seeking to leverage the success of LEGO into their own corporate benefits.
What is most striking about this particular book, and the advice it gives to companies seeking to use LEGO as a model (this particular book began its life as a case study in business strategy for Swiss university IMD) is the delicate balance and tension that LEGO used to drive their survival and revival. Among the many forms of tension was the tension between a focus on the famous brick, of which I used to own many thousands of my own as well as a desire for innovation that can chart new markets for business and ensure a bright future, the tension between seeking the best quality and getting things done, the tension between broad mindedness and depth of focus, between innovation and tradition. When initial efforts at innovation led to a loss of focus and an incredible loss of money, the company’s management team sought to get back in touch with retailers and customers, leverage its passionate fanbase into success and to rebuild trust and profitability while seeking uncharted territories to assimilate into its normal business, bit by bit, brick by brick. This balance and tension is something that any company (and indeed, any person) can use to seek improvement, even without the drastic sort of crisis that was faced by LEGO in 2003.
I was struck personally in reading this book just how I have seen, in my own way, much of what is discussed so thoughtfully in this book. Whether one is looking at the strange combination between breath and depth, between seeking to explore new areas and seeking to build on existing strengths in the face of crises . To be sure, the author does not recommend that companies using the insights gained from LEGO seek a crisis and the threat of bankruptcy in order to change corporate culture. Nevertheless, a loss of complacency, a willingness to learn from customers, and to pursue a mix between openness and privacy when the situation is appropriate is something that can be learned by many people and many companies. The paradoxical and nuanced insights of this book are enjoyable to read and also worthwhile to practice. Who knew what depth there was in plastic bricks?
 See, for example: