Building on ideas
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!”
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.