“Only the best is good enough.”
~ Ole Kirk Christiansen
LEGO is tied to one of my best and worst memories as a kid. One of my best memories is when my sisters and I would spend hours building small towns populated by whatever little toy figures we fished out of the cereal box the weekend before. Inevitably, this fond memory is quickly followed by one of walking into a dark room and stepping on one of those shiny little plastic bricks which made you immediately think, “this is it, this is how my life ends”. You almost wonder if the factory of LEGO employees sit around and laugh to themselves with every brick that comes off the conveyer belt. However, aside from the hours of joy and minutes of tears, the LEGO story is one of ups and downs sprinkled with dedication and perseverance. With so many toy companies that have come and gone over the years, how did LEGO manage to maintain its relevance and what can higher education learn from LEGO’s early years?
LEGO was founded by Ole Kirk Christiansen in Billund, Denmark in 1932. The Great Depression had taken its toll on this small agricultural-focused village. Ole was a humble carpenter who wanted to use his skills to make a positive impact on his community, but little did he know the effect his passion would have on the world. In the beginning, Ole suffered a number of setbacks, both personally and professionally, that by any account would have broken an individual. The year he founded LEGO, Ole’s wife passed away leaving him alone to raise four young boys. Following in 1942, an electrical fire devoured the LEGO factory including its entire inventory and blueprints for new toys. At the time, LEGO was not producing plastic bricks as we know them today, LEGO, which means “play well”, made wooden toys like yo-yos, pull animals, and trucks. These major life events made Ole think about the future of LEGO, but he knew how much the work meant to the families of his small farming community and in 1944, he constructed a new factory. The LEGO legacy was built on a foundation of pain to bring joy and hope for a better future.
From 1932 to the mid-90s, LEGO committed to following six founding principles that guided its successful performance despite economic challenges, shifts in consumer demands, and the insecurity of trends.
First Principle – Aspirational Mission: LEGO’s mission was based on the philosophy of good play. The original mission was “to infuse children with the joy of building and pride of creation.” Over the years, LEGO has refined its mission, but fundamentally stayed true to the original version which is best reflected in the current iteration: “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow.” This mission coupled with LEGO’s motto of creating “only the best” provided the founding operational bricks the company needed to be successful.
Mission statements are important. They provide an institution with a foundation and direction. When we stray from our mission, we lose focus which leads to internal and external confusion. LEGO started as a toy company who developed wooden toys and transitioned to a company focused on refining one product, the brick. While the company remained fundamentally true to its original mission, it clarified its purpose and broadened its reach. LEGO wanted to impact the future.
Second Principle – Relentless Experimentation: In 1946, LEGO acquired a plastic injection molding machine which at the time was a pricey investment. It was also a risky investment since LEGO’s primary toy medium at the time was wood. However, Ole and his adult son, Godtfred, were intent on sculpting the first LEGO brick by modifying a British inventor’s “Self-Locking Building Bricks.” Through relentless iterations, LEGO finally produced a brick with “clutch power”. Clutch power occurred when kids snapped two bricks together and heard the “click.” The clutch power was a game changer for LEGO because it achieved two things: 1) kids stacked the bricks with a satisfying click and separated them with a gratifying tug and 2) it provided stability that allowed kids to build simple or complicated creations limited only by their own imagination.
Many struggling institutions focus on trying to find the one game-changing innovation that allows them to remain competitive instead of refining existing academic programs. As a carpenter, Ole did not have experience with plastic, but he knew that he would need to adopt new technology to continue serving his customers in a changing market. The idea of the stackable brick was an idea aligned with the mission, but needed work. LEGO continued to refine the product until they achieved the innovation: an expandable toy that fed kids’ imaginations.
Third Principle – Systems Thinking: Part of LEGO’s success was the ability to see the direction of the toy industry and be the first to meet the demands of its customers. The first move that paid off was betting on plastic toys and the endless possibility of the brick. LEGO made the brick backwards compatible, meaning that any future bricks would connect to the original 1958 brick and with this idea came the LEGO system. As LEGO continued to grow, kids would not have to abandon their beloved toys to progress to new ones, they simply integrated the old with the new. During Godtfred’s sales pitch he said, “our idea has been to create a toy that prepares the child for life, appealing to its imagination and developing the creative urge and joy of creation that are the driving force in every human being.”
Institutions can learn a lesson from developing academic programs that are backwards compatible. Today’s student population is non-traditional. Some take a year off to study abroad, others have family and professional obligations to balance, while even more are unable to justify costs compared with the value. Students want the same opportunities from their education as the brick offered, to know their higher education efforts are not wasted and hard personal choices do not result in an inability to achieve their dream. LEGO saw the advantage of making the brick backwards compatible so its customers did not feel like they had wasted their time and money on their initial investment.
Fourth Principle – Discipline and Focus: When LEGO decided to pursue the brick, they stopped investing in and producing their wooden toys. In making this decision, LEGO was discontinuing 90 percent of the toys that made up their total inventory. LEGO used its limited resources to focus the company on its mission using a colorful plastic brick to develop the builders of tomorrow. LEGO demonstrated that, in fact, less can be more. LEGO figured out that, “knowing what to leave out—even when it’s really good—can sometimes deliver far better results.”
In desperate situations, it is easy to throw all the spaghetti on the wall and see which strand sticks, but all that leaves is a mess to clean up and a waste of good pasta. Some institutions tend to follow a similar approach and end up stretching themselves too thin and not accomplishing their mission. The strength of an institution is understanding the limits of what it can and cannot deliver. Institutions cannot be all things to all students and serve them well. LEGO’s strength was in its brick, not in wooden toys.
Fifth Principle – Appeal of the Real: LEGO figured out early on that kids’ imagination was rooted in their observations of the real world. Kids and even adults gravitate toward experiences that are real. LEGO took this information and continued manufacturing kits that allowed kids to recreate their world or the world as they chose to see it. This encouraged kids to interact with their environment and with others which increased the value of play.
Some students have a hard time seeing the connection between their real world and education. They repeatedly hear about the importance of education, but the pathways to access this valuable product is cluttered with obstacles. The students who navigate the winding road are often disillusioned when the content is not in alignment with the world around them. Students fail to see the relevance which leads to disengagement and ultimately the decision to drop out. LEGO understood that kids needed real world connections to maintain their interest.
Sixth Principle – Inspiring the Customer, Prioritizing the Retailer: In 1951, LEGO was faced with a decision to shut down its factory during the summer months because sales representatives said retailers would not place new orders until Christmas. While Ole was prepared to temporarily suspend operations, Godtfred believed this would be a mistake and leave its employees without much needed income. LEGO realized that it could not achieve its mission unless it had retailers willing to display and sell their products. Godtfred decided to visit every retailer in Denmark personally to get just enough orders to keep the factory open during the summer months. Following this model, LEGO spent the next twenty years expanding its retailers throughout Europe and the United States.
Institutions face the same challenge. The choices are also similar; either discontinue offering academic programs with low-enrollments or begin reaching out to employers to identify how these programs can become more relevant to students. While institutions primarily serve students, it is equally important to prioritize employers’ needs. This is the vital relationship that provides the connection students need to their real world. LEGO knew its retailers played a vital role in delivering quality products to the builders of tomorrow.
LEGO continues to face challenges as the world of play becomes increasingly more technologically focused. Kids are enticed by video games and virtual reality. However, at its core, LEGO provides kids with the opportunity to create worlds using their imaginations through a simple, colorful brick. LEGO has persevered to maintain its relevance. The struggles facing higher education are similar. Students are distracted by life. They work to navigate within a changing world. Education provides the answer if only we can figure out how to make it click.
How does your institution serve the 21st century student?