R&D at 3M

7 Jun 2010 Sandeep Mehta
WSJ has interviewed 3M CEO Mr. Buckley in the article At 3M, Innovation Comes in Tweaks and Snips. Even though the article title is about innovation, the actual interview has some excellent points about effective R&D management, skill-set management and motivation.
  • Senior leaders can reinvigorate an area just by making sure the team knows and feels that the area is important to them:

    “Mr. Buckley: I remember my meeting with Chris Holmes [who heads 3M’s abrasives business]. I had been in the company maybe a month. During a business review I said, ‘Tell me what is going on in abrasives. What innovations are we doing?’ Chris said we were doing this and that, but abrasives [were] not considered sexy. I said, ‘Why not? I think abrasives are sexy. Why can’t abrasives be sexy?’ I think it’s those simple comments to people who have been convinced over a period of years that they are unimportant. Chris was utterly inspired by that. 

  • Innovation and outside the box thinking is not cheap.  Creativity requires significant commitment of resources and recognition at C level

    WSJ: How else do you get your people to be creative? Mr. Buckley: Everybody wants to find out how to can creativity. You can’t. Creativity comes from freedom, not control. We let all the people in the R&D community spend 15% of their time researching whatever they like.

  • Innovation is not always targeted towards a brand new market.  It can be a new way to manufacture a product to give the company a competitive advantage.

    Mr. Buckley: It was finding ways to simplify how you make the lowest-cost high-performance respirator possible.
    We often think innovation is making a breakthrough at the top of the pyramid. That’s often not where the hardest challenges are. The hardest challenges are often: How do I make a breakthrough for next to nothing?

  • R&D management improvement is not conducive to Six Sigma like processes.  R&D is discontinuous and requires management insight

    I don’t know because it isn’t a process. [The quality-improvement 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, whether it is with me or anybody else,is a discontinuous process. You can’t say if I put more money in it I am going to get more out.

  • Hands-on senior management that walks the lab has enormous value -both in motivation and in efficiency/results.

    WSJ: How often do you go to the labs?
    Mr. Buckley: It’s dangerous when I go over. I’m told, “Every time George goes over to the labs he gets a new idea for a new product.” I probably go once every two weeks.

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