Build­ing on ideas

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By MICHAEL CHEANG star2@thes­

POST-it Notes, high volt­age elec­tri­cal ca­bles, Scotch tape, oil­rig fil­ters, wall hooks, den­tal equip­ment, face­masks, sand­pa­per and re­flec­tive road signs. What do all these things have in com­mon? Sim­ple, they are all pro­duced by 3M.

For more than a hun­dred years, 3M have been in the busi­ness of tak­ing creative and in­no­va­tive ideas, and turn­ing them into prof­itable and use­ful prod­ucts. Walk into any house, of­fice or build­ing, and chances are, there will prob­a­bly be at least one item pro­duced by the in­no­va­tion ex­perts. Not all of them may be as vis­i­ble as those brightly coloured Post-its, but trust me, they are there.

If you need more proof that 3M is more than just the mak­ers of sticky notes and magic tape, just check out the com­pany’s 3M Cus­tomer In­no­va­tion Cen­tre in Shah Alam (which un­for­tu­nately, is not opened to the pub­lic), where one can get a com­pre­hen­sive break­down of al­most every­thing 3M pro­duces.

There, the prod­ucts are di­vided into dif­fer­ent-themed sec­tions, each fo­cus­ing on a cer­tain in­dus­try where the prod­ucts can be found in. This in­cludes medicine, ed­u­ca­tion, house­hold, road safety, con­struc­tion and so on. It was cer­tainly sur­pris­ing to see just how many pies the com­pany has stuck its fin­gers into, and how many of its prod­ucts are ac­tu­ally things we use so of­ten in ev­ery day life.

Ac­cord­ing to former 3M vi­cepres­i­dent Dr Greg C. Nicholson dur­ing an in­ter­view at the Cen­tre, 3M (which used to stand for Min­nesota Min­ing Man­u­fac­tur­ing Com­pany) is a multi-tech­nol­ogy, multi-national global com­pany whose cen­tral busi­ness is us­ing dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies to gen­er­ate prod­ucts.

“In­no­va­tion plays a huge part in our com­pany. The way I see it, re­search is the trans­for­ma­tion of money into knowl­edge. In­no­va­tion is the trans­for­ma­tion of that knowl- The fa­ther of Post-it Notes, Greg c. Nicholson, shares the 3M phi­los­o­phy of in­no­va­tion. edge into money,” he said.

Born in 1938 in County Durham, Bri­tain, Nicholson left to join the Min­nesota, US-based com­pany in 1963. A chemist by trade, he spent sev­eral years in 3M’s Cen­tral Re­search Lab­o­ra­to­ries, be­fore be­ing ap­pointed to the com­pany’s Vis­ual Prod­ucts and Com­mer­cial Tape Busi­ness units.

Nicholson re­tired in 2001 at the age of 73, af­ter a 38-year ca­reer at 3M. How­ever, his pas­sion for the com­pany was so great that he now calls him­self a “self-ap­pointed 3M am­bas­sador”, and trav­els around the world speak­ing about the com­pany and about the im­por­tance of in­no­va­tion.

A tale of post-it

The story of the hum­ble Post-it Note is a per­fect ex­am­ple of the creative and in­no­va­tive cul­ture of 3M, and the lengths it goes to en­cour­age their em­ploy­ees to be more in­no­va­tive.

Although the in­ven­tion of the Post-it Note is usu­ally cred­ited to Art Fry and Dr Spencer Sil­ver, Nicholson ac­tu­ally played a huge part in the prod­uct ac­tu­ally be­ing made in the first place. In fact, he is known as the “Fa­ther of the Post-it Note Pro­gramme” for be­ing in­stru­men­tal in the de­vel­op­ment of the Post-it line of prod­ucts.

It all started in 1968, when Sil­ver cre­ated an ad­he­sive that didn’t stick very well at all. For the next five years, he tried to find some­one in one of the 3M busi­ness units who would be in­ter­ested in us­ing this new tech­nol­ogy. Un­for­tu­nately for him, no one was in­ter­ested un­til Nicholson be­came the new prod­uct lab­o­ra­tory man­ager for what was then called the com­mer­cial tape divi­sion.

“The depart­ment made magic tape and stuff like that, and we were des­per­ate for new prod­ucts,” he re­called. “Then one day, Spencer knocks on my door and showed me his ‘new’ five-year-old ad­he­sive. At first, we tried mak­ing bul­letin boards and tapes out of it; then Art Fry, who was part of my group, came to me and said, ‘Why are you stick­ing the pa­per on the bul­letin board? Why don’t you put the ad­he­sive on the pa­per? Then it will stick to any­thing.’ And that’s when every­thing clicked!”

In­no­va­tive cul­ture

Ac­cord­ing to Nicholson, one of the keys to its suc­cess story is the avail­abil­ity of 3M tech­nolo­gies to ev­ery­one within the com­pany.

“All our tech­nol­ogy is free and avail­able across the board – any­one in 3M can use any 3M tech­nol­ogy with­out any ap­proval, and do what­ever they want with it,” he said, adding that ev­ery sin­gle per­son in the com­pany is al­lowed to use 15% of their time to work on any project they want with­out any man­ager or su­per­vi­sor ap­proval, and can use ev­ery sin­gle bit of tech­nol­ogy that 3M has.

This so-called “boot­leg­ging” pol­icy is one that has paid div­i­dends over the years. To date, the com­pany pro­duces more than 55,000 prod­ucts de­rived from its 42 core tech­nolo­gies, and many of these were di­rect re­sults of the boot­leg­ging pol­icy.

“Post-it Notes came about be­cause a technician ig­nored the PhD hold­ers and used 15% of his time to work on it. Our whole cul­ture was built on the fact that you have to try new things. When you have an idea, work on it! You’ve got to have courage, be con­fi­dent, and not be afraid of be­ing pun­ished. It’s al­ways bet­ter to ask for for­give­ness, than to ask for per­mis­sion,” said Nicholson with a sly grin, adding that the pol­icy has ex­isted ever since the com­pany be­gan.

“Where do dis­cov­er­ies come from? By run­ning ex­per­i­ments! In­no­va­tors have an ex­per­i­men­tal style. They run their ex­per­i­ments first and then they ex­plain it. The­o­ret­i­cal peo­ple ex­plain it first and never run ex­per­i­ments. Cre­ativ­ity is about com­ing up with ideas, but in­no­va­tion is do­ing some­thing with those ideas.

One of Nicholson’s great­est lega­cies in the com­pany was the es­tab­lish­ment of lab­o­ra­to­ries in more than 25 coun­tries such as Bri­tain, Ger­many, Ja­pan, Malaysia, China and In­dia, which em­ploys 2,500 to 3,000 peo­ple in to­tal.

“Dif­fer­ent cul­tures see things dif­fer­ently be­cause of their back­ground. So, the great thing about hav­ing dif­fer­ent labs in dif­fer­ent parts of the world is that we have peo­ple with a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. Some­one in Malaysia might see some­thing that the Ger­mans didn’t,” he ex­plained.

Take the story of how 3M made the first face masks, for in­stance.

“Back in the 60s, dis­pos­able cloth­ing was big in Ja­pan, and the guys in the lab put to­gether some dis­pos­able bras. Then one of them got an idea and de­cided to go from ‘bust to dust’. And that’s a true story!” he said with a chuckle.

For all the prod­ucts Nicholson has over­seen at 3M, there is no doubt about the one achieve­ment he is proudest of.

“Ask my grand­chil­dren what they know about their grand­fa­ther, and they’ll say, ‘He in­vented Post-it Notes!’

“They’re so proud of that, even though it’s not ex­actly ac­cu­rate!” he said with a laugh.

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