This book begins with LEGO’s early success with its innovative system of plastic bricks. In the 1990s and early 2000s, LEGO was nearly driven out of existence by unbridled design projects, external influences not aligned with the original LEGO ethos, and cultural shifts in children’s interests. Finally, LEGO turned things around by refocusing its product offerings, embracing key customers as design collaborators, and streamlining its production strategies.
I have fond memories of playing with LEGO during my childhood but, until reading this book, was blissfully unaware of the company’s past business struggles. As one of the oldest members of the millennial generation, I grew up making DUPLO® block towers, later graduating to the plethora of smaller, classic LEGO bricks, and now enjoying LEGO-branded video games and movies as an adult. I have friends who have passed on their love of LEGO to their kids, sharing the endless possibilities for building and creation limited only by their own imaginations. Learning about the history and inner workings of LEGO, contrasted with my own consumer-focused experience, was certainly eye opening.
Many chapters of Brick by Brick focus on business topics about which I, as a design engineer, am not usually concerned. In this book and over the course of my early career, however, I have found that gaining insight into the priorities of management, marketing, supply chain, and manufacturing representatives is valuable in my professional role and gives me a more holistic perspective on design and its place in a well-functioning enterprise. It was interesting to read about how LEGO planned from the beginning to create bricks that are compatible with one another across its entire product portfolio, making collections infinitely extensible over decades of enjoyment. Later diversions from this founding ideal, while initially bankrolled by the bricks’ early success, were met with retailer and end-customer confusion, a lack of brand cohesion, frustrated employees, and a balance sheet deep in the red. Significant changes were necessary to turn LEGO around and rebuild (pun intended) its brand, as well as its relationships with customers.
Getting it right
I found the analysis of competing priorities particularly fascinating. LEGO’s enthusiasm to enter new markets before fully understanding them (e.g., video games and theme parks) resulted in massively expensive projects that inevitably failed to deliver profits. In the first stages of its rebirth, LEGO learned to balance the competing interests of retail toy store owners (who lose money when toys sit on shelves too long), parents and adult enthusiasts (who buy toys with limited resources), and children (the end users to which toys are largely marketed). LEGO’s efforts to perfect high-quality products that would bolster its brand often did not meet aggressive development timelines conducive to disrupting new toy markets. Even with successful new product lines (especially MINDSTORMS® robots), LEGO had to balance keeping its innovations proprietary with opening up new creative pathways to aspiring child builders and adult enthusiasts alike. Finding ways to bridge these competing interests through smart design is one of the key problem-solving skills that we engineers are often tapped to analyze.
While LEGO has, in the past, experimented with recruiting diverse technical expertise, nationalities, community influencers, and customer relations tactics, the company has only recently recognized gender diversity as a necessary pursuit. Brick by Brick, published in 2013, recognizes this gap in a literal footnote in chapter 10, and LEGO has since expressed its commitment to rectify the gender imbalance in its design and leadership positions.
Check out this book for yourself! The radical changes LEGO made to transform itself and the toy industry may not directly apply to your professional or academic role, but these stories will definitely get you thinking about the complex strategies that have kept this flagship of fun going for 70 years!
Review by Shelley Stracener, a senior electrical engineer in Abbott’s neuromodulation division. She holds a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from Baylor University. She served as the FY17 and FY18 president of the SWE Dallas Section and is a member of the Society nominating committee and the editorial board.