Jan Ahlsén worked as a developer of products and materials at IKEA for 40 years. His curiosity and boundless enthusiasm have been driving forces behind countless successful projects and products at IKEA. Since retiring, he has continued to work as an independent Material and Innovation Specialist. He personally finds the stories about the mistakes, when things have gone wrong, to be the most interesting ones. So what’s Jan’s number one rule? Always say yes to the unknown.
The man who always says yes!
The art of curiosity.
What are the key qualities for making progress? Being curious, and having the courage to make mistakes! To bring about change, you have to say yes to the appealing possibilities of the impossible. Meet Jan Ahlsén, one of many happy geniuses at IKEA who are unafraid of, well, everything!
Underground development? Yes!
When Jan started at IKEA in 1977, he was a controller at the large warehouse in Älmhult, and then a purchaser. After a few years, he moved to a department called Section 4 – something of an underground, slightly rebellious part of IKEA. Jan Ahlsén and his colleague Erik Andersson, a former piano tuner from Malmö, were asked to develop kitchens. “It was fantastic. We travelled around everywhere in our little car. I remember driving down to Germany and Belgium looking for factories. We met suppliers, tested all kinds of things and solved problems together. We had a huge amount of freedom.”
A new department to attract men? Yes!
In 1986, Ingvar Kamprad thought that IKEA needed to focus on attracting more men into its stores. He felt that women loved going to IKEA, and were happy to spend ages looking at the furniture. The men, on the other hand, seemed to grow tired far more quickly than the women, and Ingvar thought about ways to entertain them. The solution? A department specially aimed at men. But what would be in that department? According to Ingvar Kamprad, the stores needed a do-it-yourself department with tiles, wallpaper, paint and tools. Jan Ahlsén was appointed product manager, and learnt a lot during the process. “We were pretty creative and courageous. Everyone had a great attitude. If we got a ‘no’ during the development process, it triggered us to prove our case. Any problem could be solved, sometimes by quite unconventional methods.”
So how did it go with this ‘men’s department’? Actually quite well, although it was eventually phased out for various reasons. And the idea that men should need their own department, focusing on ‘male’ objects like tools and tiles does seem rather outdated today.
Dyed trees? Yes!
Using resources in a sustainable way is fundamental when products and solutions are being developed for IKEA. Take wood for example. Can the material somehow be refined or further developed? That was the starting point for another of Jan’s less successful experiments. “I had an idea: Why not try to dye the wood while it’s still growing? That way, we can reduce waste and use the whole tree.” Why not, indeed.
“While I was studying to be a wood engineer, I was particularly interested in the cell structure of trees. I was curious if it could be changed in some way. I remember meeting a guy who worked in the forest industry, thinning woodland. He used a wooden plug soaked in a kind of toxin to kill the trees. What if a wooden plug could be used with a pigment ampoule instead? You’d need a very thin pigment, almost the same solution as when dyeing textiles.”
These ideas were spinning in Jan’s head at around the time IKEA was looking into the possibility of using acacia in its furniture, in 1998. Acacia is a light wood with a dark heart, and it was the ideal species to try the method out on. Jan found an acacia forest in Laos which was being felled anyway to make way for a dam. It was the perfect opportunity for him to test his tree-dyeing idea. Soon he could be found wandering around the Lao acacia forest testing out his pigment plugs. He tried increasing and decreasing the pigment dose, but ultimately there was very little or no effect. The project was shelved. “But I still think it could work!”
Square trees? Yes!
One day, Jan Ahlsén heard about a Swedish steel company that had developed a smart press. Could this steel press perhaps be used to press wood as well? “At IKEA, we hate waste. And when it comes to wood, we want to make as much use of the material as possible. Most wood waste occurs when the round tree trunk is tuned into a square shape. What if you could press the round trunk and make it square before sawing it up? That turned out to be possible, and even the annual rings became square.” But that project too was eventually abandoned as the costs were simply too high in relation to how much wood could be gained.
But the ideas that have been abandoned are very few compared to all the successful projects Jan Ahlsén has been involved in during his 40 years with IKEA. But then again, he started at the bottom and worked his way up, experiencing developments at all levels. “Life is about problem solving,” as he likes to say, and throughout his career he has looked for problems to solve.
Want to challenge old truths? Yes!
Rules and regulations are what triggers Jan to want change. “I like to challenge the rules. If the world is going to be able to reduce the use of non-renewable energy sources, we can’t simply follow the old rules. We have to break them so we can create something new, to forget what we already know. We need to be curious about everything, known and unknown, new and old. To question the ‘truth’!”
During his travels for IKEA in Asia, Jan Ahlsén noticed the kapok trees which grew wild on the fields everywhere. “The fruits look like bananas. When they dry, the banana-shaped seeds turn into a kind of cotton-like fluff. It’s a hugely durable material! You don’t need to add anything or process the material in any way. It’s water resistant and has excellent floating properties. Back in the day it was used as a filling in life vests.”
Jan sent a pallet of kapok fibre to Älmhult and began testing to find out how the material could be used. He took some soft toys from the IKEA store and took out the polyester stuffing, replaced it with kapok fibre and sewed them back together again. “It was perfect in so many ways, but unfortunately it turned out to be highly inflammable. But if you don’t try things out and question them, you never learn anything new.” The whole kapok idea was abandoned, and it still bugs Jan today. He thinks IKEA should have stuck with it and developed techniques to combat the fire hazard. “Kapok is, after all, one of the most environmentally friendly stuffing materials. It has been used since time immemorial as a stuffing in bed covers and cushions. It’s light and fluffy with good resilience, and doesn’t absorb moisture. So you don’t need any chemicals or water in the process from harvesting to finished material. It would be ideal in outdoor seating cushions, for example. It’s currently used in seating cushions in boats.”
Jan is stubborn when meeting resistance and often succeeds in pushing his ideas through. Kapok may never have made it, but cork was a different story. There are two kinds of cork: dark and light. When developing the SINNERLIG product series in 2014, IKEA chose to use both kinds. The problem was that the dark cork production process resulted in a special smell. “IKEA has a smelling group, imagine that! Crazy! Smells are such an individual thing. What one person thinks smells lovely, another can’t bear. Anyway, the smelling group felt that the smell from the cork was too intense. Personally, I just thought it had a slight smell of tar. Also, the smell went away after a while. Since I hate to lose, I put some cork into my own office and asked people to come in and have a sniff. No one complained, so I presented the results of my own research and managed to push through the use of dark cork.”
Do you want to develop bamboo? Yes!
In 1996, on his 70th birthday, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad celebrated with a trip to Vietnam to visit the IKEA suppliers. There he discovered bamboo, a material that many in the furniture industry regarded as a weed. Ingvar could see a business opportunity in fast-growing bamboo, a perennial plant that can be used in everything from textiles to sturdy furniture. He ordered a pallet of bamboo poles to Älmhult.
Since bamboo is a type of grass it contains more sugar than wood, so when no one in Älmhult dealt with the odd delivery from Vietnam it soon started to go mouldy. Someone asked Jan Ahlsén to take a look before it was too late. He cleaned the bamboo, tested it, bent, broke and glued it together to get to know the material. He shared Ingvar Kamprad’s enthusiasm, and took a short trip to Vietnam himself to look into bamboo’s potential and find out what it was used for locally. But the bamboo project never came to anything, mainly due to a lack of time. “It felt like a failure. I know that Ingvar was quite disappointed, as was I.”
Want to start a factory in Vietnam? Yes!
But Ingvar Kamprad could not let the potential of bamboo go. In 1997, he asked Jan if he could move to Vietnam and start an IKEA operation there. But Jan had young children, so it was not a good time to relocate. As the new millennium dawned, Ingvar said, “Aren’t your children grown up now?” They were, so Jan moved to Hanoi in Vietnam and ended up staying for seven years. And today, bamboo is an increasingly common raw material in IKEA products.
So how exactly does one go about starting up a new operation? Jan began by finding the right people. “On a trip to Vietnam in 1997, I visited a bamboo factory in Hoa Binh that had Chinese owners. When I later moved to Vietnam and was looking for engineers with experience from the bamboo industry, we tried to find people who had worked at that particular factory. After a lot of searching and putting ads in the local press, we came into contact with Trung Pham, who was temporarily working as a taxi driver. Trung became our first bamboo engineer.”
When developing an operation so far from the head office, it is key to trust your gut instinct. Starting a factory can be quite a complicated task – unless you decide it’s not. Jan didn’t have the patience to sit around and wait for all the necessary paperwork. So once the investment had been approved, all the documents had been signed and Jan was given the green light, the factory had already been up and running for quite a while. “You have to be something of a pioneer if you want to get things done,” Jan says with a laugh.
Started in secret
The bamboo factory went well and delivered excellent products. The main one at the time was bamboo flooring from more sustainable sources. It had a low price and good quality. The factory had 20 employees who had never heard of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, Småland or even Sweden. “They did theirin the UK and also visited the main warehouse in Älmhult. I explained the whole logistical process and showed them as much as I could in as short a time as possible. I wanted to convey IKEA values, since we needed to have a common frame of reference if we were going to work together. You have to invest with your heart, and you have to invest in people long-term.”
Store work experience was something Ingvar Kamprad was passionate about. He saw it as an opportunity for ‘bureaucrats’ to get to know the customers’ needs and wishes. “I took our Vietnamese staff to IKEA Croydon in south London,” says Jan. “The store manager there used to be the head of our purchasing office in Ho Chi Minh City. The aim of the visit was to give the co-workers as full a picture as possible of how IKEA works. To show them that our values permeate the entire chain, from suppliers to transport, warehouses and stores. We all learnt an incredible amount during this journey about leadership, teamwork and openness. Everyone can have their say, the boss isn’t always right, we all have to work together, and above all we should always share our knowledge and experience.”
Jan describes himself as a dreamer. “I saw that little bamboo production site grow into a furniture factory. I dreamed of doing more things, bigger things, different things. I dreamed about development of people, but also IKEA. And speaking of development, remember Trung, the former taxi driver and my first employee? He’s now a professor of bamboo in Vietnam. Today he works for the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. How great is that?”
More is more
So what is the benefit of juggling so many balls simultaneously and working with so many different people? “It gives us the opportunity to interact and summarise what we discover. We process everything we learn and transform it into something new. This is why we ought to do all our product development on the factory floor, together with the suppliers. Just imagine all that practical know-how that’s available! If we want to be smarter than everyone else, we have to be right there in the factory.”
So has Jan Ahlsén ever said no to a project? “Not that I can remember,” he says. “When you say no you close doors, but when you say yes you open doors to new learning.”
So how do you become a person who always says yes? “Always think development, always talk about development. Never hesitate to try out mad ideas, or things that ‘can’t be done’. Say yes to everything that feels scary, impossible or just downright crazy. Yes!”