Tuesday, February 8, 2011

3M’s innovation storybook: A time-travel experience through a culture-capsule

We have a natural bias to focus endlessly on the problems with our culture and in the process ignore what is working well already. What can we do? Perhaps 3M’s “A century of innovation” holds the key. This innovation storybook not only brings out the success stories like Spencer-Fry’s Post-It and Okie’s waterproof sandpaper but also learnings from some of the failures like Thermo-Fax copiers or magnetic audio-video recording. Here are the three things I liked about the book.

1. Stories behind the pithy wisdom: Like every organization 3M’s culture would carry a number of pithy sayings many of them still active in some form or the other e.g. “Patient money”, “15 percent rule”, “Look behind the smokestacks”. When KcKnight was appointed sales manager in 1911 he knew that 3M’s sandpaper product was no better than competition. But rather than just talking to the front-desk of the furniture manufacturers McKnight asked if he could step into the back shop to talk to the workers. The usual front office answer was, “What for?” McKnight’s reply was, “We are new that’s why we are anxious to learn what you need”. Luckily some “gatekeepers” let McKnight into the factory’s inner sanctum and men on the production line told him what they thought, including how sub-par some 3M products they had tried actually were. This information went back to the product team. This is how the practice of sales folks “Looking behind the smokestacks” and going right to factory floor was born.

2. Company’s defining moments: Every company has defining moments where its core beliefs get tested. Stories of such moments as to how the company responds during such moments are quite inspiring. One such story relates to “Three-M-ite cloth” which became 3M’s first profitable product, after 12 long years of wait since 3M was started in 1902. But the glory was short lived as their biggest competitor from New York, The Carborundum Company charged 3M with patent infringement and demanded that they stop making Three-M-ite cloth. 3M hired a tough Chicago lawyer, Paul Carpenter, decided to fight. Ultimately, Carpenter argued that Carborundum’s patent was invalid: his argument was so strong 3M prevailed. This incident educated the young company about the importance of patents, a philosophy that endures today.

3. Celebrating the heroes: In 1951, James Hendricks, a manager in Tape Research, a tall man with a professorial style, invited every technical person at 3M - 400 in all - to join a forum called “Technical Forum”. An organization in which participation was purely voluntary, its original goals were to foster idea sharing, discussion and inquiry among members of the 3M technical community, while educating technical employees. In 1971 the forum had its first female chair, Julianne Prager and the forum started its Visiting Technical Women program in St. Paul area schools during 1970s. Marlyce Paulson, coordinated Tech Forum activities from 1979 to 1992. Paulson says, “The forum pulled specialists like polymer chemists across the divisions to share what they know.” I like the way this storybook highlights the work of non-CXO people like Hendricks, Prager and Paulson.

I hope more organizations use storybook as a way of communicating its values and legacy to employees, customers and other stakeholders.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing book and thanks for summarizing the key takeaways. I have started using their mantra for managers - sponsor, mentor, champion in my daily life.