2014-02-11

Co.Labs

What This Legendary Piano Maker Can Teach Every Product Team

Steinway & Sons has been making the world's best pianos for over 150 years, but a certain hacker spirit lives on inside the company, helping the company innovate without losing identity.



If your team is trying to build the next Flappy Bird, you should stop reading now.

But if you're trying to build products that can stand the test of time, and processes to match, you should lend an ear to the team of craftsmen at Steinway & Sons, masters of the acoustic technology that has set Steinway pianos apart for over 150 years.

Fabled piano maker Steinway & Sons has been operating in New York City since 1853, transforming over 12,000 individual parts, from Indian amber to green poplar, into pianos worthy of Carnegie Hall. At one time, in the late 19th century, the company was the city’s largest employer. Today in Astoria, N.Y., a team of 300 craftsmen keep the Steinway tradition alive, turning out 1,500 pianos a year. They range from the most basic upright, which costs around $25,000, to the Model D, which retails for $150,000 or more. Custom finishes, from gold plating to carved "legs," can kick prices closer to seven figures.

It's the Steinway sound that fetches those prices--not the filigrees and rare materials--although there is a vault on site with over $3 million in exotic veneers, waiting for the right buyer at the right time.

How has Steinway produced such high-quality pianos, and so consistently, for so many years? Fast Company visited their headquarters in Queens to investigate.

The Customer is Always Right--Sort Of

Steinway is happy to let buyers customize the appearance of their pianos--but not the sound.

"Inside the belly of the beast, anything that's musical--that can't be tampered with in any way," says Anthony Gilroy, director of marketing. At first it seems counterintuitive, but Steinway does not welcome mixing of engineers and musicians.

Professional pianists are treated like royalty when they visit to select an instrument, sometimes deliberating for months in the chapel-like windowless showroom room designed for its acoustics. But everything "inside the rim" is off limits to those who want to customize. Steinway technicians have years of experience in their fingertips, and each team member is master of his domain. The veterans who bend the layers of hardrock maple--forming a grand piano's distinctive curve--are so skilled that they can determine which way the wind blew when a tree was growing just from a slice of the wood.

A Holacracy By Any Other Name

From the outside, Steinway appears to have a traditional management structure. But in practice, the company org chart doesn't tell the full story.

Everyone starts at the lowest rung on the ladder, even the eponymous Steinway sons, and the onus is on line workers as much as foremen to control for quality. As technicians assemble the piano action--the mechanism by which the depression of the keys is translated into the motion of the hammer striking the strings--their work is evaluated at each step by the peer rotating into their position.

That flat management structure extends into the continuous improvement program that the factory runs on an ongoing basis. "We can't control the cost of labor and materials, but we can control the efficiency," Gilroy says.

Steinway teams run more than 100 improvement drills each year, spending at least a day at a time on small portions of the manufacturing process. Sometimes the fixes are as simple as moving a set of tools to a different workbench; sometimes they're larger. But the goal remains the same: expediency without any sacrifice in quality.

Legacy Hardware Hacks

At other times, teams take on far more ambitious improvement projects. With a deep bench of craftsmen and engineers, Steinway has the ability to take a DIY approach to its equipment. Nearly everything in the factory is a legacy hardware "hack," in the sense that 19th-century machines sit alongside mainframes from the '80s, all tweaked for 2014.

To test the quality of each piano's action, a custom-built machine pounds on the keys for over three hours, resulting in wear that's the equivalent of six months of regular use.

If one thing is clear from the tour, it's that Steinways, despite their history and price point, are not meant to be set on a pedestal. The pianos' prices appreciate over time--they've performed better than the stock market--but there's a catch: They must be played. With proper maintenance, more use leads to a better sound and a more valuable piano. Even museum curators need to arrange for models on display to be played at least once a week.

With that kind of product design, it's not hard to imagine that Steinway will be operating for at least another 150 years.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Jinks]






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1 Comments

  • I don't mind that you mention Holacracy® in your article, but I just want to point out that Holacracy is a specific system with very specific rules (all explicitly spelled out in the Holacracy Constitution: http://holacracy.org/constitution ) — it's not a generic term for "flat organizations". And from what I understand of Steinway & Sons in your article, their system doesn't look like Holacracy.

    It's not to say that Steinway & Sons' system is better or worse, I'm just pointing out that it's likely quite different. More in the blog post "Five Misconceptions About Holacracy" https://medium.com/about-holacracy/da84d8ba15e1