Remembering Satoru Iwata

It was two years ago this week that Satoru Iwata—president and chief executive of Nintendo—passed away. He was only 55, and had led Nintendo for over a decade, through some very good times, as well as some difficult years. He started his career as a computer programmer in the 1980s, and ended it as the leader and public face of the company he'd worked with for most of his life. Iwata was a truly great communicator. The clarity with which he was able to speak about lean principles in knowledge work and service work was one of the first things that got me personally interested in lean.

Keep in mind that Nintendo does not make cars, or cure the sick, or help people access services that help them live more stable lives. Nintendo makes software that people pay lots of money to use just for fun in their limited spare time. Now, I spent many of the best years of my life trying to make software products good enough for people to want to use, or to enjoy using. Even though a product may address a real problem people feel, or could improve their journey through work or other activities, people will go to great lengths to avoid learning and using software. Nobody wants software. But people certainly do want Mario Kart. I'd always wondered about that distinction, and Iwata's statements in interviews, to investors, and to his customers helped me see that Nintendo does it the same way anybody else does it: by improving the value customers get, through continuous improvement, with respect for people. Here are a few examples.

Iwata on creating value

"People have a certain amount of potential within them. Ensuring that this potential is used as productively as possible greatly helps an organization. To put it another way, there is a vast amount of energy which disappears inside organizations, or is expended going in directions which don't end up leading anywhere. If all that energy is properly directed, it can add up to a huge amount of power that can be used to produce visible results."

This is the best expression I have ever found of what it means to think about work in terms of flow rather than resources, or of a true orientation toward the customer rather than "processes."

Iwata on continuous improvement

"Making games look more photorealistic is not the only means of improving the game experience. I know, on this point I risk being misunderstood, so remember, I am a man who once programmed a baseball game with no baseball players. If anyone appreciates graphics, it's me! But my point is that this is just one path to improved games. We need to find others. Improvement has more than one definition."

Iwata on respect for people

When pressured to consider layoffs during a year when Nintendo its first operating loss in decades, Iwata responded:

"If we reduce the number of employees for better short-term financial results, employee morale will decrease. I sincerely doubt employees who fear that they may be laid off will be able to develop software titles that could impress people around the world."

Having a plan to see staff through changes (the good kind or the bad kind) and providing as much stability as possible are important parts of respect for people. At this moment of crisis, Iwata plainly stated why layoffs would harm the value the company creates for its customers—and why that was more important than the stock price at a given moment in time.


Here's a tribute to Satoru Iwata from one of his oldest collaborators, Hirokazu Tanaka. It's a remixed version of a song from "Balloon Fight", a 1985 video game which was programmed by Iwata with a soundtrack composed by Tanaka.