Helsinki, Finland 1982 – Sisu and Saucers…

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Arctic Circle near Roveniemi, Finland

Note: As part of a sabbatical leave project, I visited this manufacturing facility in Helsinki. It was an interesting study in applying Japanese management techniques and effective communication.

The word “Sisu” in Finnish means strength, perseverance and outright stubbornness. This is the aspect of the Finnish character that enables Finns to survive long cold winters and probably explains why they ultimately were able to gain independence from Russia. Finnish women are especially known for their sisu.

Dr. W. Edwards Deming introduced a management technique to Japan just after World War II called quality control circles. Deming is given a lot of the credit for Japan’s manufacturing success.  Here in Helsinki, it took the introduction of Q.C. circles to reveal an internal problem that was arousing sentiments of sisu within a group of women workers.China Samples

Quality control circles are certainly not for every company. Quality control circles are groups of seven to ten employees who meet regularly to solve job related problems. Management is usually obliged to accept their recommendations. Companies who already have good upward communications get no benefit from the technique. Many firms have tried them and abandoned them as a fad. At the Arabia China factory in Helsinki, however, I encountered an excellent example of where they are best used. Arabia’s parent company, Wartsila, sent forty of its division managers to Japan to study Japanese Q.C. circles. When they returned, they were ordered to try out the techniques in some of the divisions. Arabia was selected for one of the earliest experiments. Arabia makes fine quality hand-painted china. Finnish design is prized throughout the world and Arabia China can be found in many upscale stores throughout the United States. The hand painting is done by Finnish women. The supervision, however, consists mainly of Swedish speaking males. Normally Finland is a very egalitarian place. In this case, however, the Swedish management was oblivious to what was going on in the plant.

Arabia Factory

Finland is a bilingual country. Because it was a colony of Sweden at one time, today, more than six per cent (6%) of the population speaks Swedish. All road signs, directions and public buildings must be written in both Finnish and Swedish to accommodate this pampered minority. Formerly the aristocracy of the country, many of these Swedish descendants now occupy managerial positions.

If ever natural barriers to communications existed, this was the case in the Arabia plant. What you had were Swedish-speaking male supervisors and Finnish-speaking female workers. Although the supervisors could speak Finnish well, the barriers of social class, gender, and to a lesser extent, language existed.

Now, the males were forced by top management to organize the workers into Q.C. circles. During my visit, they told me at first they resented the prospect of having to take suggestions from women, let alone Finnish women. But orders were orders. The women began to meet on company time for two hours each week to discuss production problems.

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Finnair landing on snow at the Arctic Circle

The first problem they were given to solve centered around the new ovens or kilns that were recently installed. Because the temperature and the heat pattern within these new ovens was different from the old ones, many of the cups and saucers would break during the firing process. This problem had been driving management crazy.

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Finnish Friends

After only two weeks of meetings, the workers came up with the solution.  They devised a different way of placing the cups and saucers in the oven. The net savings for the reduced breakage was US$15,000.00 per week. Management was stunned.

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Finnish Summer Home on Lake

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Finnish Sauna

When the President of Arabia asked the female workers “why didn’t you give us this idea before? We’ve been fighting that problem for weeks.”

Their reply was: “Because you never asked us…!”


Conclusion: Much of the imagination and creativity in many organizations is stifled by the autocratic leadership style of management. In most technical jobs, the person closest to the job knows it the best. For an organization to succeed and survive in today’s fast paced environment, management needs to adopt a communication style that draws out all of that imagination and creativity in the organization. The person in the boat with you seldom bores a hole in it.

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Skiing at the Arctic Circle


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