Growth through ingenuity and enterprise
A 3M United Kingdom case study

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Page 3: Managing and developing ideas

How does a company encourage people to look beyond their current goods and services to something better and/or different? The answer lies in the company's culture, ie the typical pattern of relationships and behaviours within an organisation. For people to be creative they have to have freedom; freedom to explore new ideas within an environment that tolerates mistakes, understands and manages the risks involved.

Product innovation involves prioritisation, trials, failure and risk. The key is to minimise the organisational and financial risk. This relies on effective processes to deliver consistent results by managing innovation. The challenge is to improve these processes continually without stifling people's creativity, as this would stop the flow of new ideas that are vital to success.

There are many ways to encourage good ideas, from brain storming to reverse thinking. Brainstorming involves asking groups of people to generate ideas, however fanciful, eg for solving a particular practical roblem. A complete list of brainstormed ideas can then be analysed to agree what is feasible.

Reverse thinking allows people to broaden their thinking. For example, instead of asking 'How can we get the workers to the material?' Henry Ford turned the problem round. He asked: 'How can we get the work to the people?' With this reversal of a basic assumption, the assembly line was created.

3M has no particularly favourite method of generating ideas, much depends on a manager'a style. 3M believes that the most critical thing is to be proactive. Ideas rarely just pop into people's heads; they have to be encouraged and developed.

3M's innovations have not started with one-off discoveries or 'eureka' moments. Its new products result from deliberate, rigorous commitment to the technological development of solutions to customer needs. This customer-focused approach involves finding out what existing and potential customers want through detailed market research. A customer-focused organisation starts with the consumer, and then creates the products that match consumer demand. This contrasts with old-fashioned production companies of the past that thought they knew best. They delivered what they were good at producing, rather than what customers wanted.

At 3M, the generation of new ideas focuses on the customer. For example, the new 3MTM Paint Preparation System (PPS) solved a number of problems in garage body shops where cars are repaired after accidents. Launched in 2000, PPS is a completely new paint system that:

  • allows greater efficiency
  • eliminates traditional paint mixing pots and filters
  • is usable at any angle and requires 70less solvent for cleaning.

It is revolutionising car repair and has won numerous design and innovation awards.

With innovation, urgency and speed are essential: Competitors may be thinking and working on similar lines. 3M has numerous programmes to ensure that it identifies new products with significant potential and allocates resources to commercialise them faster.

3M United Kingdom | Growth through ingenuity and enterprise