A story about problem solving that contributed to 3M history

3M center

A story about problem solving that contributed to 3M history

Last week I was invited by the Industry 4.0 Observatory group to pay a visit to the R&D center of 3M in Madrid. And one of the things that impressed me a lot was their amazing story. Everybody knows that 3M is one of the most innovative companies and I understood one of the main reason for this is their culture.

In this post I do not intend to summarise all 3M history – which would be a good challenge for my weekend – but a very pleasant story I learned during my visit that, as I said, was fascinating. Now, if you have time, please read the full 3M history which can be downloaded here where former 3M CEO, M. W. James McNerney, Jr. explains why they welcome creative, committed, and often-eccentric people.

Let’s go back to my visit, where I could dream through the story of amazing people from the company’s origins to what 3M is today.

The first thing I learned was that 3M was originally a mining company, and in fact their name is Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing. But one of my favorite stories was about Richard Drew, a young engineer that joined the company around 1921.

When joining MMM, Richard spent some time visiting the local auto shops to test various kinds of sandpaper. During his visits, he realized one of the pains at the time was the two-tone paint job, since workers had to mask off parts with newspapers and homemade glue, which generated a lot of rework.

He also realized that 3M’s sandpaper was using a sticky surface to which the minerals would be applied. And then, he started to create his own tape. In around 2 years he found a recipe of glue and glycerin applied to a thin paper produced a tape that stuck to its surface but still peeled off easily and didn’t damage paint!

Scotch tape

Since his boss did not see the potential of his creation, he invested and built a machine for mass production. Once his boss found out what Drew had achieved, he rewarded him for his tenacity by establishing a new managerial mandate at 3M: “If you have the right person on the right project, and they are absolutely devoted to finding a solution, tolerate their initiative and trust them”

As a result, “Scotch Masking Tape” was an instant success, and immediately changed the way paint jobs of all sorts were completed!

Can you replicate the history of 3M? Can you find a new Richard Drew? Is it difficult to attract the best engineers? … Sometimes it is necessary to change one’s beliefs to master innovation.

As the head of open innovation at Ferrovial said last week at DIGITAL ENTERPRISE SHOW ’16 maybe the best engineers do not work for you: Companies need to be humble and accept that there is a lot of bright talent out there!


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