HomeBusinessShare To Innovate – A 3M Model

Share To Innovate – A 3M Model

Innovation, the most coveted and desired thing of all sectors, all governments and all corporations these days. In 21st century if there are 2 words that gets spoken by every leader in the world almost every day then those will be innovation and technology. The reason why innovation is so much desired is because the world has seen what innovation can do to a company or country or society in 20th century. Whether it is aero plane or transistor or TV or computer or internet or air condition or nuclear power or automobile or submarines or rockets or antibiotics , you name it. The power of innovation saw countries like USA go miles ahead of others in terms of economy or defense, does not matter if someone cries about bran drain post European war or brain drain from Asia now, fact remains USA is a $20 trillion economy and rest of the world are catching up. Innovation does the same to any corporations as well, that’s why the most innovative companies are miles ahead of their competitors, you talk about Apple or Microsoft or Google or Amazon or Southwest Airlines or Starbucks or lets say 3M. Yes you heard it right, 3M. Most of you might not easily recognize this name but I bet you will instantly recognize their products. Let’s do a mock drill, have you used Scotch Brite in kitchen or Post it Notes at office /home or bandages, tapes & wound dressings from Nexcare or a Littman Stethoscope or small sticky wall hooks from command or a Scotch tape. I am sure you have used at least some of these not knowing that these are 3M products. There are more than one hundred thousand patents granted to 3M and each year they add four thousand new patents. So what’s the secret, how they do, can others easily replicate what they do- the so called “ follow the best practice “ kind of thing. Let us find out.


In 1995, 3M was awarded the US government’s highest award for innovation, the National Medal of Technology. 3M has consistently been highly ranked, often in the top 20, in Fortune magazine’s annual survey of “America’s Most Admired Corporations. However if you see what 3M initially started of as and what it is now, you will frown for sure. Started as a mining company in 1902 – Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. is now manufacturing products for 11 different industries under it’s popular 10 brands. One of reason of 3M being consistently innovative is due to their culture of tolerating mistakes & encouraging R&D. 3M does reward the successful innovators highly in terms of cash and other recognition however instead of punishing the failed project scientists they foster a culture of telling stories of their famous failures. 3M failure story from its early days, still repeated inside the company, 3M’s initial business venture was to mine corundum, a material they planned to use to make grinding wheels. Instead, what they found was inferior abrasive. After much experimentation came their first breakthrough product: Wetordry sandpaper. Product inventors before starting their project are asked to recruit their own teams within 3M however if the product fails then everyone is guaranteed their previous jobs. It makes sense, isn’t, since innovation and efficiency are like North pole and South Pole. Isn’t it why companies who tries to be efficient by cutting the corners and apply lean principles on human resources to utilize them optimally fails to innovate and always play a catch up game to innovative competitors. Has any life changing innovation happened with zero waste or mistakes ? If you are promoting a culture of efficiency by punishing mistakes & cutting corners then you cannot expect innovation at the same time & you have to deal with that truth. 3M guaranteeing employees to go back to previous job post mission failure gives their employees and scientist the safety net to experiment & focus on the project without fear of losing. People who do Ice Skiing will tell you, don’t look at the trees, only look at the gaps or else you will definitely hit the trees. If you fear making mistakes either you will make more mistakes or you will sacrifice success at the cost of zero mistakes.


At 3M all engineers and scientists can spend up to 15% of their time pursuing projects of their liking even if it is unrelated to their current job. A lot of leaders will look at this and say that out of a 45 hour work week you are wasting almost 7 hours doing whatever you like ? What a terrible inefficient company, we can monetize those 7 hours and earn money, this is against lean principle . Well sure you can but then you will go from $1 billion to $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion in 4 consecutive years ( considering you are doing very well ) & a company like 3M will sit on $1 billion for 2 or 3 years, might even suffer losses and suddenly jump to $5 billion dollar by end of 4th year with an innovation & then to $10 billion dollar in next 2 years. What we term as a quantum leap. Only innovative companies can do that. 3M fosters a culture of sharing your project work with others even if you have failed with no fear of punishment.  Let me share a story with you,

in 1968 3M’s Spencer Silver was working on developing an ultra-strong adhesive for use in aircraft construction. He miserably failed in his project and his final product was a very weak adhesive, a complete opposite of what he set out to do. 3M’s culture of sharing made Spencer share his story with all scientists instead of hiding his failure due to either shame or fear. Few years later another employee of 3M named Arthur Fry who sometimes sang in a church choir, had the niggling problem of losing the bookmark in his hymnbook was thinking about this problem. Suddenly he recalled Spencer’s failed experiment & that weak adhesive. Fry noticed two important features of Silver’s adhesive that made it suitable for bookmarks, the note was reusable, and it peeled away without leaving any residue. Fry started working on that and a new product was born. The product which is available in 150 countries, 4000 varieties and every year 3M makes 50 billion of them, such is the demand. The famous POST-IT notes. There are several such innovations that can be found at 3M which were accidental discoveries and more than one innovator was credited for those.


Was it that difficult for USA and the world to ape Japan’s model of efficiency in manufacturing & bring in Lean, six sigma, Kaizen etc. ?  If you visit 90 out of 100 companies these days you will find the leaders talking about innovation however what they apply in their companies are efficiency model. Certain companies like to use the term “ innovation culture “ or “ performance culture “, these are desperate attempts to bring in innovation and improve performance of their staff. Innovation & performance are outputs so culture cannot be of outputs. You cannot have a high performance culture, unscientific. You can have a culture which drives performance, you can have a culture of sharing, caring and tolerate mistakes which will drive innovation. My point is that unlike efficiency, innovation is extremely hard to ape. Only by hiring innovative minds and people you cannot innovate consistently. Innovation will result from the environment and culture, culture takes time & grit to develop, it is not as easy as reading some principle of QMS or lean or six sigma and apply it in your company, it takes character ( of the leaders) each and everyday to build a great culture & stick to it every moment specially during adverse situation. Every employee must feel that there is a pattern at the workplace, there is pattern of rewarding people, hiring people, treating people, funding projects, signing any new deal etc. Even if you have not read about the culture and values of your company in your company portals but you should be able feel and know by working everyday what things the company values. That is when a leader has successfully developed a culture.

Biswadeep Banerjee
Working as a Sr. Manager Networks & Communication for a leading European IT Organization. Thinker, researcher and a Rebel at heart.
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