A Culture of Innovation at 3M

November 13, 2007

8 Min Read
A Culture of Innovation at 3M

Read more about 3M's guiding principles and listen to podcasts with Larry Wendling!

With a rustbelt name like Minnesota Mining and Mfg., one wonders how a century-old company still thrives developing new technologies. Better known as 3M, few other companies with such great diversity and size have so successfully translated home-grown technologies into new products. Except for roofing granules, 3M was never really in the mining products business. What it does have is 4,000 researchers, engineers and scientists (9,200 worldwide) packed into one square mile at its St. Paul, MN campus. How does a $24 billion company create a culture to keep those employees productive? And how do new technologies and inventions permeate the layers of such a large company? For better or worse, 3M in recent years has applied more structure to the process of innovation, but the company’s guiding principles have not changed. DN editor-in-chief John Dodge spoke to 3M Staff Vice President of Research Larry Wendling about 3M’s culture of innovation.

John Dodge: What is the culture of innovation at 3M?

Larry Wendling: If you think about 3M’s fundamental business model, we’re a diversified technology company and we grow by inventing new products. Innovation is inherently linked to a fundamental business model so it’s not something you have to tack on at the end. That doesn’t mean other companies can’t be innovative, but you have to understand what innovation means and how it relates to your fundamental business. In our case, we define innovation as the coupling of a differentiated technology with a customer need (and) to develop something that has not been invented. If you think about our history, we’ve created products that did not exist before.

JD: What are the principles of innovation at 3M?

LW: There’s about seven basic principles and practices that really foster our culture. Number one, you need the top down commitment (to innovation). It’s very easy to get that when innovation is your business model.

Number two is a culture of individual freedom allowing the inventor to pursue something not on his daily worksheet. This goes back to legendary CEO William McKnight. He came up with the McKnight Principles in 1948 and most of our people can cite those today. Hire good people and let them do their job in their own way. Second, tolerate mistakes. As CEO, he was a rather unassuming fellow, but very much into the details and understood technology. Even though he was bookkeeper by training, he filed 3M’s first patent. We hand that culture down from generation to generation by telling stories. We’re full of stories that reinforce the behavior that we are looking for.

JD: What is number three?

LW: A key part is access to multiple technologies. 3M is one of the most technologically diverse companies I am aware of so it’s nice to have these technology solutions floating around. Often times, it’s one gee- whiz type technology that people see in a product, but there’s three or four other technologies to get that product to market. If you think of something as simple as of a roll of tape, why do people buy it? Because it’s sticky. Guess what? There’s coating technology, film technology and a low-energy surface material on the other side. It’s nice to have all those technologies in one place, but people only see the sticky. I also like to say people can usually make three phone calls in the company and come up with a world expert in that technology. We have 42 technology platforms which we think we are world class in. The real key is blending those technologies together. Often, you develop new technology by combining technology A with technology B to create technology C.

JD: Where are we in the guiding principles?

LW: Number four is networking, our secret weapon when it comes to innovation. Informal networking is extraordinarily powerful. It’s in our culture. It’s in our genes. That being said, there are formal ways to perpetuate that network. One of the keys is our tech forum. This has a grass roots organization of 9,200 technical people. They run their own program and their primary objective is to keep talking to each other.

JD: Hence the campus, here?

LW: We have maintained about 4,000 technical people in one square mile here and they keep bumping into each other. That being said, 60 percent of our business is outside the U.S. and now half of our technical organization is outside the U.S. so our big challenge is how we create this site wide campus globally.

JD: What is a 3M poster session?

LW: If our technical guy is working on a program, he just puts his posters up. You get 100 people in a room and they share their idea. You would not believe the buzz that happens. It’s just constant poster sessions for us. The other day we had one on sustainable products and materials. Someone put a call out and there were 100 posters and people talking about what they are doing relating to this topic. That generates other ideas. My point is one person talks to another person and they put two things together. Last week, I heard there were a hundred connections made with people following up after that poster session. We don’t get too hung up tracking down what we got out of it. We have faith that when things get connected, good things bubble to the top.

JD: What is your technology claim to fame at 3M?

LW: I developed a class of polymers that were used as abrasion-resisted coatings and also some materials in our printing plates and imaging devices. It was funny. I was a blue sky researcher when I came into the company and I did not understand that you really could take science and reduce it into something that (people) would pay money for. But once that bug bites and once (I saw my) first polymer reduced into a product, it becomes extraordinarily exciting. I was working in one of our fundamental research labs and the people in our division are driven to come with new products. So if I can come up with new and unique materials, they want to work with me so they can accomplish their objectives. That gets back to the networking and teamwork. You can’t do it alone. I could have been the greatest polymer scientist in the world, but if I did not have an engineer that could take these materials and coat them on a piece of film, it would have stayed in the lab.

JD: Give the next principle, please.

LW: Rewards and recognitions are very important. Our scientists and engineers career path is tied to doing good science (and) getting that science commercialized. We expect good science. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. To get to our top technical position, you have to do something significant technically, but it also has to result in something significant commercially.

A lot of (our recognition programs) are peer nomination and peer driven. If you think about it, what motivates engineers and scientists is doing good work and then being recognized by their peers. That’s true in academia, industry and elsewhere. Measurement and accountability are important, too. That’s tied a bit to career progression. It’s sort of half a pillar, but the primary measure of innovation is new product growth.

JD: What are the last principles?

LW: The seventh is the combination of technology with a customer or societal need. You have to run shoulder to shoulder with the customers. This building (where the interview is taking place) is called a Customer Innovation Center (it opened in September 2006). This where customers pay their own dollar to come with their own teams to the Twin Cities and talk to 3M scientists and engineers and solve their problems. This is a working center where the focus is not products, but the technologies we can use to work the customers.

Related Podcasts:

3M Research Chief Larry Wendling discusses 3M’s philosophy about green engineering. DN Editor-in-Chief John Dodge is the interviewer. 2:473M follows guiding principles to identify new markets and the new technologies to support them. In this podcast, 3M Research Chief Larry Wendling outlines these principles to DN Editor-in-Chief John Dodge. 2:523M Research Chief Larry Wendling identifies 3M’s newest technologies that have the greatest potential. DN Editor-in-Chief John Dodge is the interviewer. 8:42

3M's Larry Wendling

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