Five Innovation Lessons from 3M

Five Innovation Lessons from 3M

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 had 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?

Wanting to know the answers, I visited the 3M Innovation Centre (Bracknell, UK) in October. From the moment I stepped in the door, I felt the inspiration and the potential to make a difference. With pictures of “Hall of Fame Innovators” and 3Ms innovation elements plastered all around the building, 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 know 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, as it’s where they prove their reputation and makes the work 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 their time to know their needs, discovering the big problems that they can try to solve.

2. Create Innovation Time

IMG_2496 33M employees are able to spend up to 15% of their time working on a project that they are passionate about. But doesn’t this create huge inefficiency? Well perhaps, but out of “15% time”, 3M has created billions of dollars of revenue. Not everything pays off, but things that do provide the benefit that 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 let projects even if there is no immediate benefit, on the assumption that an application for those ideas may be hiding in plain sight.

3. Accept that Innovation is a Bumpy Journey

3M know that innovation is not a smooth road and has many bumps along the journey. 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 covered 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. Remember the Innovation Heroes

IMG_2491 3As humans, we love and need stories; 3M remembers and tell their innovation stories about the legendary heroes. Not every 3M’er is going have a book written about them, but the history inspires current employees to strive for more.

The team who developed Post-it Notes needed to show customer demand, so they set their phones to forward their managers.  Every time an internal 3M employee phoned to request more Post-it notes, the managers got the calls – they were inundated – and were convinced of the customer demand! This says much about 3M aspirational commitment and passion to complete the last steps towards real commercial success. It’s such an inspiring story for other innovators.

3M truly honour their legacy and that it really means something to be a 3M’er.

5. Encourage Collaboration and Give Help

IMG_2495 23M 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 need are probably in 3M already, they just need to find it.

As an example of this behaviour in action, the Automotive team, found and converted an automated mixing solution developed by the Dentistry team to fill tooth fillings and applied it a vehicle body-filling problem they were struggling to solve.

The 3M culture is open to help each other, as they know that if the help someone, 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!

Free Experiment Canvas

NB: This article was first posted on the Innovative Thoughts Blog.

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Being Innovative - the role of the leaderHarvey Wade is Innovation Program Manager at Cisco providing strategic direction and support to leaders and their organisations. Prior to Cisco, Harvey has had innovation roles at Allianz, Mindjet and Spigit. His blog is Innovative Thoughts.

Harvey Wade




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