Incremental Innovation at 3M

3M is the innovation powerhouse that most people associate with Scotch tape and the Post-It note. They were the first company to give each engineer a specific amount of time off, every week, to invent new things: back in the 1950s, when they called it “15 percent time”–15 percent of every week, each engineer was expected to work on wild and innovative new ideas. W. L. Gore and Associates, by the 1960s, had followed this policy with a ten percent policy, and Google famously has a 20 percent policy.

3M’s CEO, George Buckley, knows that his engineers all want to be the inventor of the next breakthrough. And of course, that’s a good thing. But, he doesn’t want them to forget about the low-cost, incremental innovations–as he says, “at the bottom of the pyramid”.* One example he gives is making a respirator mask that costs less money; no one thought that was sexy. As Buckley says of his engineers,

A lot of them felt that what was interesting was what was at the top [of the pyramid]; These people are turned on by things that are intellectually challenging. [I had to] convince them that the intellectual challenge is making a real innovation that costs next to nothing. Initially it was hard for them to buy into.

When asked, how do you motivate people to work on things they don’t think are sexy, Buckley’s answer wasn’t that helpful–he basically said, I just keep telling them that yes, it is sexy, why don’t you think it’s sexy? (He gave the example of Chris Holmes, who heads 3M’s abrasives business–think sandpaper–and had commented that abrasives weren’t considered sexy.)

About creativity, he’s right on the mark:

Everybody wants to find out how to can creativity. You can’t….It isn’t a process. Six Sigma’s worked wonderfully in our factories but we tried it in our labs and it doesn’t work. It’s obvious why. The creative process is a discontinuous process.

* WSJ, Monday March 1, 2010, “At 3M, Innovation Comes in Tweaks and Snips,” pp. B1, B4