NSL Blog

How to create an innovative and sustainable company

January 19, 2013

How do we approach and create an holistic and systemic design of a business? Here is a story from the book that explores a different way of creating greater value – not only in the the product but in fact through the entire organisation, being more lightweight, sustainable, and innovative.

Gabriel Branby, chief executive of Gränfors Bruks (a company that makes axes) story starts with him buying Gränfors Bruks; discovering the company was in crisis financially, he also realised that the inequitable way in which people were paid showed in personal motivation and the end quality of the product. So he sought to find a way that would bring his workforce together as a community, in which they all believed they were sharing equitably, married with a refined production process and an ethical approach to business.

Branby’s story is about how one designs and builds a successful company predicated on quality; a quality of product achieved through systems thinking that also incorporated a process to bring out the ethical and committed craftsman in his entire workforce. These committed craftsmen and women are able to produce the best axes in the world. Which is why we have to ask what is the axeness of an axe? ‘The axeness of an axe? What on earth does that mean I hear you ask? Well it’s about starting with the essence of something, stripping things down and taking away anything that is superfluous.’ Take away unnecessary materials and production processes and add knowledge, Branby explains. At his factory in Sweden, Branby has a collection of over 2,000 axe heads. In wanting to learn about the axeness of an axe, Gabriel travelled extensively through his homeland of Sweden and further afield talking to people that use axes on a daily basis. Branby gathered extensive information on axes – their usage and design. That knowledge ultimately informed both the business design and the manufacturing process he employs.

Responsibility for ‘The Total’: Branby thinks in systems; he calls his worldview and philosophy ‘The Total’, as it encompasses ethics, business, production process, products and the world in which we inhabit.  For him, ‘What we take, what we make and what we waste’ are in fact all questions of ethics. We have, he says, an unlimited responsibility for ‘The Total’, a responsibility that we try but do not always succeed in taking. One part of that responsibility is the quality of the product and how many years it will endure. Rather than designing in obsolescence, Gabriel designs it out.

This philosophy in making a high-quality sustainable product is a way to pay respect to the axe and its user, and to nature, which provides the raw material. A high-quality product in the hands of those who have learned how to use it and look after it will very likely be more durable. This is good for the owner, but it is also beneficial as part of a greater whole; increased durability means that we take less (decreased consumption of material and energy), that we need to produce less (which gives us more time to do other things we think are important or enjoyable) and that we destroy less (so there is less waste).

Craftsmanship and meaning making: Gränsfors axes are forged by craftsmen, smiths motivated to do good work, who are able to forge axes with such precision that no supplementary work is needed to stone, grind, smooth or paint the axes to hide mistakes in the forging. The forging craft is allowed to take its time. The smiths do not work by the piece. They take care and do the right forging from the beginning. A smith at Gränsfors Bruks has nothing to hide and is proud of his or her professional standards. When the craftsman or craftswoman is satisfied with their work and has personally accepted the axe, the head is marked with their initials next to the company’s crown. These are the craftsmen and craftswomen of Gränfors Bruks. [Read more about Craftsmanship as philosophy and practice].

What do I take out of this? I could say that was a nice man taking about axes, but what relevancy did it have to me? I could take the view that I don’t make axes, so there is no relevance to me but that is the means by which we become closed, unable to be open, to be adaptive, and always be in beta as a craftsman must always be, so there is another way of framing this story. I see a story about whole systems design that includes, people, nature, sustainability and an ethical belief that manifests itself into a truly extraordinary product that has shaped an entire company. There are lessons here to learn about innovation, to seek innovative ways to create. And this has been achieved through learning deeply about anything and everything to do with axes that stripped away all the things that gave nothing of value to the axe and added knowledge. Gabriel gave meaning to his workforce and a motivation in which they were commercially but equally personally dedicated to give their creative best – an engaged craftsman is a committed craftsman, ergo an engaged workforce is a committed workforce.

C. Wright Mills, a mid-20th-century sociologist stated:

The labourer with a sense of craft becomes engaged in the work in and for itself; the satisfaction of working are their own reward; the details of daily labor are connected in the worker’s mind to the end product; the worker can control his or her own actions at work; skill develops within the work process; work is connected to freedom to experiment; finally, family, community, and politics are measured by the standards of inner satisfaction, coherence and experimentation in craft labour.

What Wright-Mills is saying is that meaning is created through a craft approach to life. And in many ways is a gift that we give to ourselves and to others. So craftsmanship does not only exist in the manufacture of ancient tools it exists or should exist in all that we do. Straight Line thinking ends here.



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