REV: JULY 23, 2002
Innovation at 3M Corporation (A)
On the evening of October 23, 1997, Rita Shor, senior product specialist at 3M, looked across the conference room at her team from the Medical-Surgical Markets Division. She wondered when to draw to close the intense ongoing debate on the nature of the team’s recommendations to the Health Care Unit’s senior management. A hand-picked group of talented individuals, the team had embarked on a new method for understanding customer needs called “Lead User Research.” But this initiative to introduce leading-edge market research methods into 3M’s legendary innovation process had now grown into a revolutionary series of recommendations that threatened to rip apart the division. While senior management wanted the “Lead User” team to execute a manageable project involving surgical draping material to protect surgery patients from infections, the team now wanted to rewrite the entire business unit’s strategy statement to also include more pro-active products or services that would permit the upstream containment of infectious agents such as germs. 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.
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...