The 3M Way to Innovation: Balancing People and Profit

The 3M Way to Innovation: Balancing People and Profit

by Ernest Gundling, Ernest Grundling

3M's visionary model of innovation has drawn accolades from the business community for decades, but until now a thorough analysis of its inner workings has remained elusive. How did this modest Midwest enterprise, founded in 1902, overcome its early failures to develop a string of highly successful products that has led to vigorous growth for nearly a century?…  See more details below


3M's visionary model of innovation has drawn accolades from the business community for decades, but until now a thorough analysis of its inner workings has remained elusive. How did this modest Midwest enterprise, founded in 1902, overcome its early failures to develop a string of highly successful products that has led to vigorous growth for nearly a century? How does it plan to extend its innovative momentum into the new millennium?

Drawing on more than 10 years of consulting and research, Ernest Gundling explores the reasons far the company's innovative achievements. He traces the key factors responsible for creating and sustaining a work ethos that inspires innovation at every level, illuminating many of 3M's unique business practices: Structured Serendipity, the Benevolent Blind Eye, and the legendary 15 Percent Rule, among others. Technical and global innovation receive special attention, as does the question of how staff can both support innovation and become innovators themselves.

As the first full-length book since the 1950s on this leading global organization, The 3M Way to Innovation not only provides invaluable insights into the principles and practices that have kept 3M on the cutting edge but also presents a lucid framework for adapting these best practices to other enterprises. Even the challenges faced by the company in balancing its sophisticated "people system" with the ever-greater demands of the information age and Wall Street hold useful lessons for others. For managers, aspiring entrepreneurs, and businesspeople concerned with innovative excellence, there is no more compelling story than that of 3M.

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1: The Innovation Process

It is impossible to spend even an hour at 3M without hearing about innovation. The company's official vision statement is to be THE MOST INNOVATIVE ENTERPRISE IN THE WORLD. Unofficially, it seems that almost every 3Mer has a pet project or some team activity that is focused on promoting innovation in his or her particular area.

3M's basic definition of innovation is arrestingly straightforward. Innovation is:

New ideas + action or implementation which results in an improvement, gain, or profit.

Employees are quick to point out that this is not the same thing as creativity. Innovation is more than just a bright idea; it is an idea that gets implemented and has a real impact.' In other words, somebody has to make it happen.

Even though the definition of innovation is simple enough, many sophisticated processes contribute to transforming ideas into reality. This chapter looks at:

  • Types of innovation

  • Pivotal openings that transform humdrum research routines into moments of sudden insight

  • Organizational levels at which innovation takes place

  • The innovation champion, or what 3M calls the "inventorpreneur"

Management is naturally involved in each step along the way, and its role will be touched on briefly here, with a fuller treatment given in later sections of the book.

3Mers relish the chance to share their company's innovation stories: she countless tales of people who somehow defied the odds and the status quo, stumbled, tried again, persisted, and finally succeeded. Examining such stories in relation to each element of the innovation process will help to reveal how innovation actually takes place.

Three Types of Innovation

There are several distinct types of innovation. The first, most radical, type gives birth to a brand new business or industry (Type A). 3M has done this in the past with coated abrasives, Scotch tape, magnetic recording tape, and reflective signage. The second type of innovation, Type B, "changes the basis of competition." Such innovations create a new competitive position or niche within an established field. The third is a line extension, which produces an incremental advance. Offering 3M's Post-it notes in multiple shapes and colors is a simple example of extending a product's life and market.

Each type of innovation involves a different kind of customer interaction: Type A transcends existing customer desires by serving needs that have not yet been articulated. Type B breakthroughs may originate in a research laboratory before they are matched with customers' needs, while Type C innovation is often closely aligned with explicit customer needs.

Nonwovcn materials are a classic example of what 3M calls a technology platform-a set of core technologies that are used in inventing a family of related products for different businesses. A nonwoven is a mass of fibers that is assembled into a web and bonded together through any of several techniques, including one similar to the process for making cotton candy.

3M's nonwoven technology dates from the late 1930s, when a researcher named Al Boese ran a late-night experiment. Boese took a machine that heated and kneaded rubber-one step in the manufacture of adhesive for tape-and in place of rubber ran clumps of cellulose acetate fibers through the machine's rollers. He found that the machine could flatten and bind the fibers, creating a new nonwoven material.

In spite of the best research efforts of Boese and his co-workers over the next decade, there were no immediate practical applications for this discovery. On two occasions in the late 1940s, management recommended ending the research. Finally, a third management review gave Boese's team just three months to find a marketable application for his nonwoven technology.

In desperation, Boese thought of creating a decorative ribbon by bonding lustrous threads to a nonwoven web. Using a dime-store comb and sewing machine bobbins, he put together a contraption to lay parallel fibers onto the web. Further tinkering and equipment upgrades led to a nicely finished product called the Sasheen decorative ribbon-and a quarter-million yards of sales in its first year.'

New investments in web-making equipment in the 1950s spawned fresh products. Decorative ribbons eventually led to floppy disk liners and insulation tapes. Another prominent product family that emerged was Scotch-Brite materials, including the scrubbing pads that have become a familiar feature in most American households. Simon Fung, a Senior Research Specialist in the Nonwoven Technologies Center, tells the story of one more nonwoven product family called Melt Blown Webs:

At first they intended to make a bra cup out of Melt Blown Webs, and even obtained a patent, but it didn't work out. However, at that time surgeons were using fiberglass masks, and someone had the idea to turn the bra cup into a surgical mask! This idea really took off. Another attempted product application was to skim the fat off chicken soup, as the nonwoven fabric would pick up oil but not the other liquid. This concept didn't go very far either, but it led to a material that could be used to clean up oil spills.

Dave Braun, a researcher in the Occupational Health and Safety area, recounts his own early role in this convoluted trail of innovation. One of his first breakthroughs was to redefine the product possibilities by redesigning the machine which formed the material.

I developed a way to make a wide web out of blown microfibers. Rather than simply forcing the material through the machine, I made the machine itself bounce back and forth, creating two sets of parallel fibers. They said it wouldn't work .... [but] I eventually sold my idea, got support, took it to the next level, and got more support. You just need a little money and a little support to nourish an idea through its earliest stages. The more original an idea, the more fragile it is. It needs breathing space. There's no precedent, no infrastructure.

Braun's wide web technology was put to use in making 3M respirators. His next invention was the Particle Loaded Web. He incorporated particles into the microfibers by holding them over his machine and letting them fall into the fibers. This technique fully activated the particles-a critical feature in allowing respirators to filter well. 3M's new respirators were thus very effective at filtering toxic fumes, even mercury. Braun and his colleagues then developed ways to put electricity into the fibers so they would attract dust like a magnet. Now the respirators worked six times better than before, and 3M could make them lighter and more comfortable to wear....

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Meet the Author

Ernest Gundling is cofounder and managing director of Meridian Resources Associates, a consulting firm headquartered in San Francisco that assists clients with the development of business relationships and human resources in the Pacific Rim. He also serves as a lecturer in organizational behavior at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Gundling received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago.

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