I came across this speech “Innovation and Invention” that Boeing CEO James McNerney gave at the University of Michigan College of Engineering early last year. The speech exposes “myths” and “facts” about innovation a la Jim McNerney. His decidedly corporate take on innovation includes “rigor and discipline” as Fact # 5 about innovation in the corporate environment.
With stops at 3M and GE prior to taking the helm at Boeing, McNerney had long preached the Six Sigma in research philosophy. In the speech, he decries the “eureka” or serendipitous moment and asserts innovation is a team sport requiring discipline and hard work. McNerney pokes holes in the urban legend that 3m Scientist Art Fry alone discovered Post-It Notes as the result of a “eureka” moment. Fry had help from 3M’s lab, marketing and manufacturing arms, notes McNerney, who was 3M CEO from 1999 until 2005. At 3M, McNerney implemented the controversial Six Sigma in research which was unpopular among many long-time 3M researchers and scientists. McNerney’s successor George Buckley scrapped Six Sigma in research.
Whether you agree on not with his very corporate position on engineering innovation, his speech is a worthwhile read. Not surprisingly, McNerney is an MBA type, not an engineer. However, his three employers - Boeing, 3M and GE - have all been engineering companies. Engineers rule in the rhetorical sense, but not in reality!