How Lego Built the Coolest Company in the World

Two years later the company abandoned wooden toys altogether, when it had 450 employees in Billund alone and eight foreign satellites. By the early sixties one employee could work two plastic molding machines at once, and production continued to expand with play kits and minifigures (born in 1978), as well as an array of new pieces, products, and eventual movie tie-ins.

Today Lego employs nearly 14,000 people, is sold in 130 countries, and has roughly thirty product lines (from Lord of the Rings kits to Lego Mindstorms, from which one can build motorized robots). Having opened new factories in China, the Czech Republic, and Mexico, the company now makes more than 55 billion Lego elements a year out of 4,200 tons of ABS, a thermoplastic polymer. It’s said there are about a hundred bricks per person on earth.

“People will tell you they have their own path to playing with Legos,” said Michael McNally, a company spokesman. “Everybody has different sets. I began with Legoland, the town, and I love Lego Architecture. Someone else loves Star Wars.

Or Mindstorms. People like to talk about the infinite with this system, but it’s also very limited because [the brick] is a rigid geometric form. So the idea that you can look at something finite and see infinite possibilities in it, and believe you can make something round out of it even though it’s square, is very hard to explain.

I think in other cultures we might have rounded the edges because someone wanted them round, but I think there’s something to this idea of discipline and restraint that almost liberates these forms. Lego bricks can be anything you imagine them to be. That’s really their appeal.”

IT’S SAID THERE ARE ABOUT A HUNDRED BRICKS PER PERSON ON EARTH.

This not-knowing-the-mystery, as well as the creative act of bending the material, or reshaping its shape to match the one in mind, may partially lie at the heart of Lego’s greater addictive appeal too. And perhaps it’s a Danish diffidence, an under-assumption about what the company is really meant to do for its customers (after some dangerous years of over-assuming, years that nearly led to bankruptcy during the early 2000s), that leaves an open space for us, the makers.

During my visit to world headquarters, in Billund, I repeatedly met with people—make that employees who’ve made Lego bricks their life work—who also struggle to understand the exact algorithm for the brick’s ubiquity.

Headquarters here are modest-looking, low-slung buildings made mostly of yellowish brick, and because the town is so sleepy, many of the employees commute up to an hour each way from bigger towns. The company culture is decidedly unpretentious—and employees really do seem to subscribe to the 11 Paradoxes of Management listed on a placard hung in every Lego manager’s office, these three, among others, calling for individuals “to be a visionary—and to keep both feet firmly on the ground. To be self-confident—and humble. To take the lead—and to recede into the background.”

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