3M is an iconic innovative company. Although mostly known for “sticky and scratchy things” (post-its and sandpaper), 3M have over 55,000 products, releasing 25 new products per week and over 3700 global patents granted in 2016.
Over 90,000 employees, 200 manufacturing plants and 86 labs are all focused on progressing 3M’s innovation agenda. But how do 3M maintain and sustain this engine of innovation?
Curious to find out, I visited the 3M Innovation Centre (Bracknell, UK) in October. From the moment I stepped through the door, I felt the inspiration and potential to make a difference. With pictures of “Hall of Fame Innovators” and 3M’s innovation elements covering the walls, I knew this visit was going to be special.
I met Wynne Lewis, UK R&D Director and Adam Newland, UK&I Senior Technical Manager, who shared some of 3M’s secret sauce: “Research is the transformation of money into knowledge; innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money.” 3M understand the importance of knowledge, and that knowledge is used to create value.
So how do 3M continue their innovation success? Here are five lessons I took away from my visit.
1. Spend Time in the Smokestacks
3M love the tough problems- it’s where they prove their reputation, and they make the work more interesting. A core 3M principle is to “spend time in the smokestacks”, meaning they go where their customers are, observing them working and ask lots of questions. They don’t guess what the customer needs, they invest time to understand their needs, discovering the big problems they can try to solve.
2. 15% Innovation Time
3M employees are able to spend up to 15% of their time working on projects they are passionate about. But doesn’t this create huge inefficiency? The opposite! Out of “15% time”, 3M has created billions of dollars of revenue. Not everything pays off, but things that do provide the benefit 3M needs to reinforce “15% time”. Every 3M’er knows that they can use this time and it attracts innovative people into the organisation.
They are willing to let people work on projects even if there is no immediate benefit, on the assumption that an application for those ideas may be hiding in plain sight.
3. Innovation is a Bumpy Journey
3M know that innovation is not a smooth road but has many bumps along the way. As a result, they have developed the McKnight Principles (named after a previous CEO): Hire good people; let them do their job; expect and tolerate mistakes. 3M know solving big problems is a voyage of discovery and not always coated in gold. However, they learn from their mistakes – or experiments – and as a result, progress to find the solutions.
Innovation is ingrained deep within their culture. 3M have made innovation business as usual.
4. Remembering their Innovation Heroes
As humans, we love and need stories; 3M remember and tell stories about their legendary heroes. Not every 3M’er is going have a book written about them, but their history inspires current employees to strive for more.
One such story features the team who created Post-it Notes. They needed to show customer demand, so they set up their phones to forward calls to their managers. Every time an internal 3M employee phoned to request more Post-it notes, the managers got the calls – they were inundated – and so were convinced of demand! This says much about 3M aspirational commitment and passion to complete the last steps towards real commercial success. It’s an inspiring story for other innovators.
3M truly honour their legacy and it really means something to be a 3M’er.
5. Collaborate and Give Help
3M are a large organisation, and with 25 new products being created each week, there is a lot going on. To avoid the creation of silos and duplication, 3M have tech forums aligned to specific interest areas, where the members share research, problems, ideas and solutions. 3M know that the answers they’re looking for probably exist in the company already, they just need to find it.
An example of this behaviour in action was when the Automotive team found and converted an automated mixing solution, developed by the Dentistry team to fill tooth fillings, and applied it to a vehicle body-filling problem they were struggling to solve.
The 3M culture is one of open reciprocity, employees know that if they help a collegue, then it is likely that help will be reciprocated when they need it.
This was an inspiring visit and 3M were open and generous hosts. I learnt some great lessons that I must to put into practice!
Really like this
“3M’s secret sauce: “Research is the transformation of money into knowledge; innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money.” 3M understands the importance of knowledge, and know knowledge is used to create value”.
It’s a fantastic phrase isn’t it Paul! Glad you liked the blog post – thanks for your comment.
Thanks for posting this; 3M really seems to have figured out how to properly enable innovation at scale. I’m curious about whether you have any insight as to how 3M captures and shares learnings in such a way that they don’t re-invent the wheel all the time. Coming from a large global company, there were frequent examples of different teams doing similar things but having no hint of the other’s existence until they accidentally stumbled into one another.
Hi Chris, thanks for the question. I did ask them this and they do get duplication at the early stages. However, due to their sharing nature in the tech forums, which form around their 49 strategic elements, those duplicate efforts are noticed. They then collaborate to take the best of the ideas and move forward together. I can’t imagine that it will work in all cases, but the culture and processes that have been established over many years enable them to overcome this common problem.
Great post – thanks Harvey for sharing this.
3M have clearly reached – and maintained – a high level of organisational maturity on innovation. Did they share any insights on how to achieve this, and sustain it?
Eg I’m presuming it takes strong leadership support to protect time and effort spent on innovation, versus the pressure to focus entirely on delivering short term, operational results – which are much easier to measure and reward.
Thanks Geoff. The 15% time is now an organisational norm. It can affect short-term productivity, but due to the length of time this has been in place, 3M see the uplift from the long-term innovation that is bearing fruit.
If they stopped 15% time it would go against the 3M culture that’s in place.
Thanks Harvey – that clearly works (at 3M and elsewhere), and it’s a long established tradition there. Its a tougher challenge to introduce it in organisations that aren’t currently doing it – and some have gone the other way, faced with competitive pressures. Eg I used to work for a consultancy that had a “20% tradition” in its Technology division, but abandoned it to focus on measurable results and to be in line with the rest of the business.
But organisations need to do something to up their “innovation act” – all the signs, from stock market valuations, recent results etc, are that organisations with a strong “innovation capability” are pulling ahead of those who take the traditional approach of making money from the assets they already own.
Reblogged this on ALCHEMIST. El blog de José María Benito. and commented:
Proud to be a 3Mer!!!