Fridge to the Future

When I bought a new fridge, I wasn’t expecting to get a window on the future.

No, there wasn’t a door at the back that took me through to a different world, or any Prime Ministers hiding in the egg rack, or anything unusual about the fridge at all – apart from the fact that it was a brand I’d never heard of.


“They’re Chinese”, the sales assistant told us.

Well, it was great value and exactly what we wanted, so we bought it.

If you had to think of company that was going to be revolutionary in the way it worked, you’d probably come up with some cool tech company, out on the west coast, developing virtual reality AI underpants made of bamboo, or something like that.

You wouldn’t come up with a fridge manufacturer, would you? Much less one that started over 100 years ago in China, before the communist revolution and before the economic liberalisation that made the country an economic superpower.

And yet Haier has been called the most pioneering company of our times, and it’s ‘Rendanhayi’ philosophy is admired and being adapted by companies all over the world.

Haier turned the rulebook upside down, and the organisational structure too, in order to directly connect the employees to the customers. It junked the central bureaucracy and middle management layer to create thousands of self-managing teams that act as entrepreneurs in direct response to the customers needs. It has freed employees to innovate and self-direct.

It’s not just become a very successful global company, absorbing the appliance businesses of GE and Candy, it’s also expanded into many new sectors and businesses. It’s dissolved the conventional boundaries within and around the organisation to open up all sorts of possibilities, driven by the potential and imagination of the people in it and its ecosystem.

It’s an overnight success, though. It’s taken over 35 years under Zhang Ruimin, its visionary leader, and many iterations of the business to reach the current incarnation, as a networked organisation of entrepreneurs.

I’m not suggesting everyone should copy the Haier model but we should take inspiration from their re-imagining of the organisation. It shows what is possible when you decrapify work and release the potential of the people. 

Haier’s approach is pretty Pirate too, enabling collaboration at speed and scale between independent groups. There are high levels of autonomy and transparency too.

Who’d have thought that when a civil servant took over the running of an under-performing fridge factory in communist China, it would lead to a completely unique approach to business? From such unpromising beginnings has come a pioneer for new ways of working.

If Haier can do it, anyone can.

And they make bloody good fridges too.

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