This went against the incrementalist approach that for so long had pervaded 3M. After all, as Mary Sonnack, division scientist and an internal 3M consultant on the new Lead User methodology, noted “3M gets so much revenue from incremental products . . . like a blue Post-it note instead of just a yellow one. ” Outside the window, the late autumn breeze rippled through the tall Minnesota grass—a seasonal reminder that it had been a year since the group first embarked on the Lead User process (see Exhibit 1).
The method, including training, had called for less than six months dedicated to the entire process. But the lengthy commitment from participants as well as 3M senior management might just pay off if it took the Medical-Surgical Markets division from a stagnating business to a reinvigorated enterprise. Clearly, however, unless the team came up with successful product ideas and effective positioning, the new methodology for product innovation would die with the winter frost. And so might the entire business unit. History of 3M Corporation1
In 1902, on the banks of Lake Superior, five investors got together to excavate what they thought was high-quality corundum, a mineral almost as hard as diamond that manufacturers used for producing abrasives. What they dug up under the banner of the Minnesota Mining and 1Much of the information on 3M history comes from G. C. Nicholson, “Keeping Innovation Alive,” Research-Technology Management, vol. 41 (3), May/June 1998, pp. 34-40 and 3M Annual Report, 1998. ____________________________________________________________ ___________________________________________________ Professor Stefan Thomke and Research Associate Ashok Nimgade prepared this case. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management. Copyright © 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to http://www. hbsp. harvard. edu.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School. 699-012 Innovation at 3M Corporation (A) Manufacturing Company, however, turned out low-grade and worthless. After filling one $20 order, the venture folded up its mining operations and turned instead to the sandpaper business. Here, disaster struck again: the abrasives they had imported from Spain refused to stick to the sandpaper.
Research and development (R&D) then at 3M, as the company became known, took place in a primitive laboratory so small the sole technician had to back out to let the boss in. The young technician figured out the problem after plunging some sandpaper into water and noting an oil slick. Follow-up investigations revealed that during shipment from Spain, an ocean storm had caused olive oil to leak into the abrasive material. This insight allowed for fixing the sandpaper problem while also establishing the emphasis on technology and innovativeness at 3M.
By 1916, survival assured, the company started paying stock dividends. The firm, now headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota, initially stayed close to abrasives, developing the world’s first waterproof sandpaper in the early 1920s. 3M technicians began bypassing purchasing agents in order to better understand product needs. Often, they walked into factories and workplaces and talked directly to workers, an unheard of practice that yielded unexpected dividends. While visiting an auto-body shop in the 1920s, for instance, Richard Drew, a young lab assistant, heard a torrent of screams and curses.