18 months in smoke and dust

From chaos to new strength.

Group photo of large group of IKEA staff in 1980s clothing, behind banner saying Gothenburg, European champions.
Group photo of large group of IKEA staff in 1980s clothing, behind banner saying Gothenburg, European champions.

Following some intensive years of expansion in the 1970s, IKEA suffered serious growing pains. Many new stores had opened in Europe, and the workforce was increasing dramatically. Meanwhile, the organisation itself had barely developed since the 1960s. Communication was slow, and costs rose while quality fell. The oil crisis was just the last straw. A serious concerted effort was now needed, before it was too late.

A lot of co-workers wanted a calmer year with time for reflection, and without constant new store-building. Ingvar Kamprad was hesitant about slowing down in the middle of a financial crisis. But he too was concerned, perhaps mainly about what he saw as bureaucratisation, a threat to the culture and identity at IKEA. Back in 1976 he had published The Testament of a Furniture Dealer to increase awareness and understanding among the workforce. But that wasn’t enough.

“A lot of new people had joined IKEA in a short time. They worked a lot and with great enthusiasm, but didn’t really get it,” says Ken Muff Lassen, who at the time was part of IKEA group management, working closely alongside Ingvar Kamprad in Humlebæk, Denmark. “The Testament of a Furniture Dealer was a unique document with a wonderful objective. But living up to it in the everyday and making sure everyone embraced its ideas was a colossal undertaking.”

When the idea of a reboot, an internal stocktake, took hold, Ken Muff Lassen thought that a few surveys and reports would do the trick. But Ingvar Kamprad wanted more. The seventh point in the Testament established the importance of concentrating efforts “for maximum impact, often with small means”. His aim now was to solve the crisis with a huge mustering of forces.

“That was typical Ingvar. He could inflate a small idea up to massive proportions. He was the one who came up with the idea of Kraft 80 (Strength 80) and it turned into a whole revolution,” says Ken Muff Lassen.

Group photo of IKEA staff in Germany wearing blue and white clothes in front of white building with yellow IKEA sign.
IKEA had expanded very rapidly, and the new staff had not had time to get an understanding of the unique culture that should characterise the business. Strength 80 was meant to fix that.

A powerful flying start

Once the decision was made, in spring 1979, things progressed very quickly. In just a few weeks Strength 80 was up and running – a year-long process during which all co-workers were to turn the company inside out. Björn Ogard, then administrative manager at IKEA in Sweden, was appointed as Strength General. Björn later described the process as “eighteen months in smoke and dust”.

“Ingvar wanted us to implement a kind of cultural revolution, in our own way. Bringing in consultants was out of the question. I had to pick out 50 or so people from the everyday operation, seniors and juniors from every country. They formed 12 project groups who would examine the operation from the inside out, travel round to stores and warehouses, and look at and talk to the product groups in Älmhult. I was in one of the groups myself. Eventually, we submitted final reports with suggestions for improvement to the group management and Ingvar Kamprad.”

A successful combination

Mats Agmén, who had recently been employed as a trainee at IKEA in West Germany, was thrown right in at the deep end. He was one of the people who was to monitor compliance with the Strength 80 decisions, and he later became IKEA store manager in Bobigny, France. In retrospect, he believes it was the combination of a lack of understanding of the IKEA culture and poor finances that made Strength 80 possible.

“This was probably ten or 100 times cheaper than bringing in consultants.”
– Mats Agmén

“IKEA had had tremendous growing pains since expanding outside of Scandinavia in 1973, and it was clearly hard to implement our values into the everyday operation. The problem increased exponentially the further we moved away from Älmhult. But the most rational argument, which I didn’t know at the time, was that IKEA was suffering a cash-flow crisis. Investment came to a halt, and people were freed up that were otherwise building stores. So suddenly there were various co-workers who could focus on this very important group-wide project. This was probably ten or 100 times cheaper than bringing in consultants.”

The Strength 80 groups each focused on one area. “Our group looked for problems with the self-serve system,” says Mats. “Others looked at the furniture displays, the restaurant, lighting, logistics and so on. We certainly turned a lot of things inside out and solved a whole load of problems. But I think the most important thing was that Ingvar Kamprad and his management group found out what things were like on the shop floor, thanks to independent direct reports.”

Newspaper photo of small group of staff at IKEA Sweden dressed in 1980s casual clothing.
Newspaper image of a woman and two men working together around a table.
Newspaper picture of three laughing men skipping rope together outdoors.
Everyone who worked at IKEA – several thousand kilos of brain – took part in the work with Strength 80.

4,300 kilos of brain

The Strength 80 groups were asked to use all 4,300 employees for support. Everyone, from warehouse workers to managers, chefs, checkout staff and designers, should be able to have their say. It was described as a mustering of forces for the whole workforce, who would ‘engage several thousand kilos of brain’ for a new IKEA, better equipped for the future. To bring co-workers on board, competitions were held with prizes every month. This was called the first European Championships at IKEA. Everyone at the 23 stores competed in odd events like Lamps, Kitchen & Bathroom, or Furniture Displays. It was about giving the most and best suggestions that could solve problems large and small. There were more than 3,000 suggestions in the first round alone. Some led to rapid responses from the relevant Strength 80 groups, while some others were introduced as tests in selected stores.

Drawing of a hand holding an old style plane ticket with text
All employees were given a stamp-card in the form of an air ticket, which was used for the whole campaign period. Everyone who submitted tips and suggestions got to compete for monthly prizes. Anyone with all the stamps at the end of the project was entered into a draw for a round-the-world trip.

“Ingvar loved tackling problems. If you didn’t have a problem, you weren’t looking hard enough,” Ken Muff Lassen remembers. “Strength 80 led to a flood of criticism from the stores, country managements and even Älmhult. Some people found it hard to take the criticism, which led to a new mantra of having to ‘love criticism’, to take criticism with enthusiasm as it’s an opportunity to make things better.”

A cure for suffocation

A project magazine in six languages called Match, sometimes called the ‘Strength Paper’, was distributed to thousands of employees once a month. Inspired by tabloid newspapers, the magazine attracted readers with provocative headings and a lot of exclamation marks, whether the articles were about spectacular news, or storage shelves and light fittings. In the first issue, Ingvar Kamprad personally voted Strength 80 “the most important thing that’s happened to IKEA”, and continued: “There are threats greater than the oil crisis to the corporate group’s continued dynamic development … stagnating designs, increased difficulty in being different, and staying glued to experience. The most effective cure for these tendencies is Strength 80 – without it, we could have been suffocated.”

The magazine also reported on the stores’ contests in the internal European Championships. There were sports metaphors and points tables, with the Aubonne store in Switzerland for a long time at the top, closely followed by Älmhult. But in the final, it was Gothenburg that won. The country manager for Sweden at the time, Hans Ax, presented the gold medal, noting that the Gothenburg store had used a “baffling technique”. They had maintained a consistent level without showing off, thereby collecting the most points. There were also individual prizes. First prize, a round-the-world trip, was won by Sven Svensson of Älmhult. Sven was not a regular flyer, but did look forward to visiting beaches in Hawaii and IKEA in Hong Kong (in economy class, of course).

Cover of internal IKEA tabloid MATCH with photo of Ingvar Kamprad and headline about the project Strength 80.
Cover of the internal IKEA tabloid with pictures of staff and headline
Cover of internal IKEA tabloid MATCH with photo of Ingvar Kamprad and headline
An internal tabloid was published monthly throughout Strength 80 to engage the staff.

Cycle stands and reactors

As the project was coming to an end, Strength General Björn Ogard noted that the vast majority of the suggestions and decisions related to what he called “bicycle rack issues”, and only a few were “reactors”. According to Mats Agmén, the greatest benefit was that Strength 80 triggered a great many necessary internal processes ahead of the company’s expansion and success.

1970s photo from IKEA store with a mixed display of woven baskets, pine tables and chairs.
Photo from a 1970s IKEA store shows a messy display of chairs, signs and a flatpack.
When IKEA launched Strength 80, many of its stores in Europe had uneven quality and problems with everything from keeping stock to displaying products.

“In truth, the quality of our stores was very uneven, and some of them were waste dumps in parts,” Mats explains. “They had unacceptably low levels of product availability, a lack of skills and poor merchandising. Price and product communication needed developing. Nor was there any centrally produced training material. If it wasn’t for Strength 80, IKEA would have lost the customers’ confidence and developed in all kinds of uncontrollable directions. It was also an amazing management school, to be able to travel around the stores, meet people and get to know the group management. It was an invaluable aspect of future successes, that so many people had the opportunity to work so broadly and build a network.”

Restaurant with sideboard displaying blueberry soup mix cartons, akvavit bottles and small Swedish desk flag.
IKEA restaurant in Berlin, 1979–1980. The idea for a global restaurant concept with a Swedish character came along during Strength 80 and still remains today.

After the project, Ken Muff Lassen was in charge of analysis and follow-up. Some of the ideas had already been implemented, while others would take a while. Still today Strength 80 is evident in everything from a global restaurant concept and cost-efficient price tags, to a children’s department with a broad selection of products, and revolutionary packing and loading methods.

Many suggestions were about the need for a kind of culture school or training camp, where co-workers could learn about IKEA and its core values. The training programme was called The IKEA Way, and all senior managers, new and old, got to meet Ingvar Kamprad and devote a week to understanding the various parts of IKEA, and above all the culture and overall perspective. Training material was produced and translated. Later on, IKEA opened its own business training programme in the Netherlands.

Large group of people smiling and waving in an auditorium. Ingvar Kamprad sits in the middle of the first row.
One of the strongest ideas to emerge during Strength 80 was to regularly educate co-workers about IKEA and the company’s core values.

While Ken Muff Lassen worked hard on follow-up in early 1981, expansion resumed at full force. Things had not simply stood still during this year of soul-searching. In just nine months, 14 new stores opened in Europe. Not long after that, establishment in North America began.

“Responsibility, this wonderful, challenging word.”
– Ingvar Kamprad

In his Christmas letter to the workforce, Ingvar Kamprad described the process as tough but successful, writing: “Never before have we learnt so much. Never before have so many co-workers put forward so many wise opinions.” He emphasised that the ongoing work on decentralisation and distribution of responsibility was now the most important thing: “Responsibility, this wonderful, challenging word. Transformation takes time, but you will soon notice the change yourself.”