100 Years of Innovation in Five Simple Lessons

Giving high honours to mistakes and playfulness at work are some success tips that CapitaLand staff gleaned at the ICE visit to 3M

Issue: Nov 2014

CapitaLand staff embarked on an enriching learning journey to 3M to get a glimpse of the company's century-long innovation and business experience
CapitaLand staff embarked on an enriching learning journey to 3M to get a glimpse of the company’s century-long innovation and business experience

At 112 years old this year, 3M is seen as the wise sage of corporate brands.

With operations in more than 70 countries, over 89,000 employees, more than 55,000 products and over $30 billion in sales annually, 3M was ranked fifth in the 10 Most Innovative Companies in the World by global consulting firm Booz & Company.

How does 3M do it?

As part of CapitaLand’s ICE (Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship) programme, 36 CapitaLand staff got a glimpse of the company’s century-long innovation and business experience – distilled into an inspiring two-hour tour at 3M’s office in Singapore.

After a power-packed afternoon, Inside zooms in on top five favourite lessons CapitaLand staff were excited about to bring back to their own work.

Lesson #1: Make Mistakes

William McKnight rose from assistant bookkeeper to president and CEO in 3M, his business and management philosophies have been crucial in the company's success till today
William McKnight rose from assistant bookkeeper to president and CEO in 3M, and his business and management philosophies have been crucial in the company’s success till today

The story goes that 3M began with a rocky start.

The company set out in 1902 to mine corundum, a mineral that was good for the making of sandpaper. But this venture failed terribly: the mine contained the inferior material anorthosite instead, which was of little value.

By then, 3M had incorporated. The blunder birthed 3M’s spirit of perseverance as the founders persisted by making their own sandpaper.

In 1914, another crisis struck: oil had spilled onto one of the sandpaper shipment, and nobody in the company knew.

The accident prompted William McKnight, then general manager of 3M, to establish a research lab that would test materials at every stage. The lab was where 3M’s culture of risk-taking and innovation began.

McKnight once said: “Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. It’s essential that we have many people with initiative, if we are to continue to grow.”

Lesson #2: Put Innovation and Money Hand-in-hand

Dr Lim sharing a famous quote by 3M's Geoffrey Nicholson: Research is the transformation of money into knowledge; Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money
Dr Lim highlights the importance of linking innovation and business by sharing a famous quote by 3M’s Geoffrey Nicholson: Research is the transformation of money into knowledge; Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money

Today, 3M is motivated to innovate not only to survive, but to thrive.

Dr Lim Boon Kiat, senior principal engineer at 3M, highlighted the three key aims of 3M’s culture of innovation: to enter new markets, improve efficiency and adapt to new environments.

“That innovation is so tied to business is the company’s biggest competitive advantage, and it’s also the heart of 3M,” said Dr Lim.

The strong bond between innovation and business in 3M’s direction impressed Andre Lim, Vice President, Market & Strategy Insight and Corporate Planning, CapitaLand Limited.

“A quote from the Father of the Post-it® Notes Programme Geoffrey Nicholson stuck with me too. It goes, ‘Research is the transformation of money into knowledge. Innovation is the transformation of knowledge into money’. This focus is what I would like to bring back to my work,” added Lim.

Lesson #3: Instead of Inventing, Try Reinventing

3M developed the technology behind overhead projectors into innovative products such as LED light mixing, road signs and even abrasives
3M developed the technology behind overhead projectors (which was developed in the 60s) into innovative products such as LED light mixing, road signs and even abrasives

“You guys are old enough to know what an OHP (overhead projector) is right?” Dr Lim asked the audience.

The OHP, an invention by 3M, in the sixties, uses micro-replication technology that captures and reflects light more brilliantly.

Today, 3M has developed this technology into products such as LED light mixing, road signs and even abrasives.

For 3M, the process of drawing inspiration from one product or technology and transforming it into many new ones across markets is known as product and technology migration.

“The trick is not to start from scratch, but to relook at something and combine it with something else. Before you know it, you get a new product,” said Dr Lim.

A simple example: the adhesive technology (Scotch® tape) was combined with the wound management technology to create medical bandages.

For 3M, shared technology is the heart of reinvention.

Mr Ken Goh, 3M Customer-Inspired Innovation Program Manager, gave CapitaLand staff a tour in 3M's Customer Technical Centre
Mr Ken Goh, 3M Customer-Inspired Innovation Program Manager, gave CapitaLand staff a tour in 3M’s Customer Technical Centre and revealed how everyday items like paper, windows and sponges make use of 3M technologies

Lesson #4: Observe the Customer

3M's product and technology migration is a process of drawing inspiration from one product or technology and transforming it into many new ones across markets
3M’s product and technology migration is a process of drawing inspiration from one product or technology and transforming it into many new ones across markets; the Scotch® masking tape is one successful invention

Having a bright idea, making a good product or delivering exceptional service is all about observation.

In 1921, 3M hired Richard Drew as a lab technician.

One day, Drew was watching a painter spraying a car. The man was using gummed Kraft paper to cover up the parts he wanted unpainted. When he removed the gummed paper, it stripped the paint away with it.

Drew then decided to work on an adhesive that would leave a clean demarcation line, and this invention is now known as the Scotch® masking tape.

The innovator further developed McKnight’s earlier R&D beginnings into a priority for 3M.

Toh Shu Wen, Executive, Customer Experience Management, CapitaLand Singapore (Commercial), said this was her favourite tip from the tour.

“3M has a strong emphasis on the role of the customer, and the company values the customer’s feedback. In my job, the toughest but most important part is to change the mindsets of people. It begins first by listening to everyone, most significantly, the customer,” said Toh.

CapitaLand staff taking time to understand the products in the 3M Customer Technical Centre
CapitaLand staff taking time to understand the products in the 3M Customer Technical Centre

Lesson #5: Invest in a Culture of Play

3M encourages its employees to spend 15% of their working time on personal projects. And employees can do just that with the company’s resources.

Dr Lim highlighted how the culture of freedom not only welcomes innovation, but also encourages staff to be their own bosses.

When talented people are free to prove their ideas, it reaps success in the long-run. Even if these talented people are mistaken, invaluable lessons can be learnt.

Witnessing the initiative and passion of 3M staff left an indelible mark on Kristen Lee, Marketing Communications Manager, CapitaMalls Asia.

“Each of them who has guided us today is so clear about what the company stands for. It shows in the way they explain their company’s culture and products. They have a really infectious spirit, which is a good measure of a company’s success,” said Lee.

All smiles at 3M's newly launched Customer Technical Centre, an interactive space that showcases the company's innovation journey and products
All smiles at 3M’s newly launched Customer Technical Centre, an interactive space that showcases the company’s innovation journey and products

One word sums up these five favourite lessons: positivity. What sustains 3M and its relationship with its customers is the company’s optimistic outlook.

It shines through 3M’s story of good and bad times, and it certainly shone through the afternoon, leaving CapitaLand staff invigorated, inspired and motivated.

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