aMMMazing! — Quotidian — 395

(Transcript of video originally posted on 21 May 2022)

It was the year 1902. A company founded in that year! It has got more than 60,000 products. Individual products. From the very small to the very large. From the daily commonplace to those special components used in space crafts… It has got one more credit! It is probably the most “patented” company. It has got… Recently it crossed that record… 100,000 patents! Their employees now hold, for their products, for their processes, for their technologies, 100,000 patents! Who is this company? What can we learn from them?

Namaste! There is a little clue, hidden right in the title. Did you get it? The name of that company.. M. M. M. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing..! Hey! It’s our familiar friend, 3M! What a famous company that is!? We are going to talk about just this company now!

It started with a small rock — that is how they recount the history of this company! There was this mountainous region that this company’s founders purchase. Hoping to mine much from that, wanting to mine corundum, a very hard substance, as hard as a diamond, capable of even cutting through diamonds, … that is how they start it. But, disaster strikes very early! True credit to them that they didn’t let this very early setback to affect their business. It wasn’t corundum. It was actually a mineral much lower in quality, called anarthosite. They get only this mineral… But, without losing hope, how do they fight back… How did they reinvent themselves… How, even after a hundred and twenty years, 3M stands as a symbol for innovation and quality…? What is the story behind it?

A company that started like this, 3M, when Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on moon, when he places his first famous footstep on the moon, “A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind”, the sole of the shoe he used, the special rubber used for it, was manufactured by 3M! How did they make this jump?

Scotch is a special brand name owned by 3M. (Not Scotch Whiskey). But, Scotch Tape. Used for masking on automobiles. Masking is a very important task. Because, when you want to paint two colours on an automobile, one paint shouldn’t bleed on to the other, and so they mask it. The masking tape should not leave any residue, should stick well, … These salespersons had gone to sell the tape, and the car mechanics had ripped off the tape disgustedly in front of the salespeople, and told them, “Go give it to your Scottish bosses, ask them to make it better, and come back!” (Because, in those days, the word “Scottish” was used derogatorily, to represent people who were stingy, who weren’t bothered about quality, etc… How did THAT brand name, that rejected brand name, become so famous as one of the best tapes in the world?

How did THAT company manage to somehow get on to the hands of Steve Jobs? Every iPhone and every iPad that was launched in the first six seven years of the Apple saga, that thin film on the top of the glass, those touch-sensitive gestures, from swipe to tap, from touch to drag, how did they happen? Because of film from 3M! How did the “Scotch” brand… how was it able to make this leap on to Steve Jobs’ hand? It has to be magic!

And, that magic is captured in this book. It is called A Century of Innovation.
I am not sure who actually wrote this book. So many people have contributed to it. It is a company book. A book by the folks from the company for the folks in the company! But, it is such a beautiful study! Such a historic account of all kinds of ingredients that go into innovation, invention, collaboration, and sustenance. If something has to go on and on and on for ever, what are needed? These are needed! Little bits, here and there, we have already seen in some other Quotidians, but if one company, so far ahead of its time, many many decades ago, if they have managed it, surely they are worth being praised, and surely they are worth being emulated. We need to copy a lot from here! Pay attention!

The first thing that struck me in this book, there is this phrase called “Patient Money”! Is there an amazing idea? A stellar product? A spellbinding technology? Is there too much friction and resistance internally towards that? But… Do YOU feel that this is something worth pursuing, something worth encouraging? Go ahead! Do it! The company will take care! The company will protect you! Because, they seem to know that the Patient Money… some things yield fruit only when you let it take its own time.. Months, years, let it soak in and eventually bloom. You cannot speed up innovation. Beyond a point, speeding it up will kill it! This seems to have been deeply embedded into their psyche, according to this book. So many products, from their taping products to their new adhesives, they have always encouraged people to just “Keep at it” and have a “Go at it”. If you are confident, you should not bother that there is resistance around you. Patient Money!

The second concept that seemed to appeal to me is this thing about managing people. We have already seen a variety of different approaches in a variety of different companies. Nothing new, under the sun. But, so many years ago, when management wasn’t even a discipline, when I realise that this company has already innovated in the right people processes, it fills me with wonderment! William McKnight was among the first CEOs. He, way back, a hundred and ten years ago, he talks about delegating responsibility. If you have reached a position, start thinking about how can you give away all the other roles. Because, people under you need to be told that they are trusted. That they are tolerated. That they are actually being given the freedom to innovate in the way they want to. We have already seen the famous triplet of words — “How”, “Why”, “What”. In that context, “How you get something done is up to you, I am not going to micromanage you” is the trust you need to give the people under you… They are not going to be happy being told how to get something done. They want to be told what is needed. Sometimes, they don’t even want to be told that! They just want to be shown the why. They will take care of the how!

The third interesting aspect that kind of popped out to me was how they fostered innovation. They have this lab. Research lab. Some of the scientists in that research lab will go fishing on a Thursday afternoon. Doesn’t matter. Because, over the long run, they would work on a Sunday night and anyway, make up for it. Also, innovation cannot be measured in clock hours. We know that very well! And, when somebody has a product idea, when somebody is passionate, when somebody is passionately creative, just leave them be. We don’t know when the next Post-It! notes is going to come along! (We will be revisiting these Post-It! notes in a while…!) It was such a path-breaking innovation for 3M! A failed innovation! When everybody was relegating it to the trash bin, thinking what earthly use can come of it, other opportunities were discovered, dug up, and the invention was revived! So, who knows what else is going to pop up when you least expect it! Beware, is the message this book gives us.

We have talked about 20% time at Google. Where they famously allow you to experiment, to pursue your own passion, to do a side-project. But, you know where that came from? That came from 15% time at 3M. 15% time at 3M came right after the Second World War. 1948! Imagine, in 1948, they are saying, 15% of your time, chase your own dream, just go ahead! Cellophane tape was born like that. Cannibalisation of ideas! If something is happening the company, and competitors are threatening to eat it up, 3M would say, don’t allow the competition to eat it up, come up with our own product that cannibalises this one. It is not just for saving face! Our own product will get new business from the death of our own product! Isn’t that amazing?! There is a heat-resistant paint. It has been invented already. But, there seems to be no market around for it. Why? Because, all these years, instead of a heat-resistant paint, they have been using a heat-resistant cover to protect the car till now. Who brought this cover to market? 3M! Cannibalisation! Heat-resistant paint from 3M cannibalised heat-resistant cover from 3M! There will be disagreement. If you are a technologist, if you are a scientist, it is okay if management disagrees with you! Go ahead. Do it on your 15% time. Come next month. Do a demo. Win your case. And share your dream! That was the message in the book.

Meet this man. Richard Drew. He was a senior scientist. A scientist among scientists. A scientist who was herding a lot many other scientists. One of his greatest inventions, of course, was cellophane. Scotch tape. The scientist who invented cellophane. While putting his team together, he made it very clear. Hire for creativity. Hire creative people. Hey, don’t get me Ph.Ds. Hire creative people. Yeah, we can always hire a Ph.D for the nitty-gritty details. Did you listen to that?! Because, he felt, education, higher education, the more educated somebody became, the more rigid they ended up being in their thought process, and we need out of the box thinkers. So, hire for creativity, we can get Ph.Ds for the nitty-gritties anyway, later..!

When talking about innovation, 3M had this very clear message, very important message, transferred to every member in the company. Innovation and Invention — there is a big difference. Invention is finding something out. But, it becomes an innovation only when it touches the lives of customers in a positive way. It should change their hearts. It should introduce progress in their lives. It should empower them to do things that they couldn’t do till now. That is when it can be counted as an innovation. This, for example, is the first artificial track. A running track. 3M made the first synthetic track for the Olympics. They called it Tartan Track. Made of urethane. They used a rubber component to create this track. Nozari was the person who invented this. Nozari goes to his boss, George Allen, and says, “I have done this. I have finished. What do I do next?!” To which George is supposed to have chased him off with a response like this: “Finished? No! No way! Not at all! Go to every division in the company! Go to every department! Show them what you have got! And find out where else this will be useful! Where else, this new compound that you have invented in the lab, can be useful!”.

Perhaps that is why, the same chemical compound found in the Tartan Track is being used as a surgical brush. The sponge used in this surgical brush is made of the same material that makes the Tartan Track! So, same chemical — completely different environment, completely different use, only because, invention is easy, innovation is a longterm process, and requires interaction, collaboration with people.

When employees look at 3M, they see it as a very big sandbox. A playground. Almost every scientist in the book says, “It is an experimental laboratory for us. Even if you pay the same salary, you can’t give the freedom, the spirit of innovation that I see here”. “Sixty percent of the experiments that we try in this research laboratory fail! They don’t hit mainstream! Sixty percent of them fail! And the key benefit here, in this laboratory, is we don’t attach failure to the individual. We don’t punish the people who actually failed in that experiment. We almost wear it with pride and honour, like wounds of battle! See how many failures I have survived!” Phone calls used to arrive to this research lab. The book talks about a specific call. “From the Wisconsin plant of 3M, we received a phone call. And, we were told to visit this plant and spend three days. We were told that nobody will tell us what to look for. We can meet with the employees, they will be ready to answer any of our questions. Look around. Find out what’s to be done. After three days, their employees will be waiting to listen to us and follow our guideline. We were supposed to tell them what has to be changed for them to become more productive and more innovative.” They were like a flying squad within the company. They were like a research lab who would get phone calls with a blank cheque. Just go and find out what can be improved! Imagine!

The book also talks about important types of people that any person or any project needs for it to really succeed. First, you need a Mentor. A Mentor is typically really charged up about a technology or process, and seeing you involved in it, says, “Come, Let me teach it to you. I will be your Guru”. A Sponsor is actually in love with that amazing product you are trying to build. Because, if you bring out something amazing, that is good for the Sponsor too. So, I will do my best to help you! I will sponsor this because the results will help me also! The Champion? Well, this person is in love… with YOU! “You are so amazing, if you succeed, I will be happy, I am ready to be the person who will push you forward. Whatever you do, I am in love with you, I am so thrilled about the potential that you have, let us make YOU happen!” says the Champion. So, the Mentor is in love with the technology, a Sponsor is in love with the final product you are building, a Champion is in love with you. These three kinds of people… some count themselves lucky if they get one such..! And 3M is famous for building an environment that makes all three possible!

Were there any negatives? Across that book.. The 110 years of that book… for many many years, I saw only photographs of men. No women. And, photographs of only white men. Why? Couldn’t they get any other kinds of people for innovation and leadership roles? A dull prick in my conscience once in a while… as I flipped through that book.

Similarly, the book talked much about patents. Patents are good, yes. A hundred thousand patents — amazing. But, it looked to me that they took it too far. Guess how far they took it??

They have patented this colour! Canary Yellow! The colour! How can somebody patent a colour?? Come on! Seemingly, when people see this, they are immediately reminded of Post-It! notes, and Post-It! meant 3M, and so… but how fair is it to patent a colour itself?!

Also, it didn’t always work! All the great innovations, all the amazing processes they had, didn’t help them escape this attack by Xerox. 3M was manufacturing thermally coated paper. They were in love, they were enamoured by it, that they didn’t notice Xerox creeping in with “I don’t need any special paper. Any paper in! I will print it as a copy on any paper! Because I have magic in the lenses and the laser internally!” 3M never understood. They fought a losing battle for many many decades against Xerox, and finally lost. So, they have lost too… And, credit to them — they talk about that too, in the book!

As a closing thought, one interesting line that the original CEO talks about, McKnight talks about, remained in my mind. He used to take samples to factories, in his horse-carriage. But, he would not just go to the front-office, talk to the bosses, share samples, and go home. He, (and he would encourage his colleagues to too!), to go behind the smokestacks! Find out what’s happening there. Where the real work is happening. Where the real workers are. That is where you would get the real feedback. So, I think that is a very important lesson that is relevant even today. If you are a product creator, go behind the smokestacks. Ask people who will really be using it, and ask for feedback from them. Alright! We will meet on May 30th! Thank you!

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