Monday, June 17, 2019
Case Studies » Featured Case Studies » Case Studies » 3M: Innovation, ideas and solutions for a modern world

3M: Innovation, ideas and solutions for a modern world

Innovation, ideas and solutions for a modern world

This Case Study investigates how 3M has developed a culture of innovation that drives new product development throughout its global operations.  It examines the process of innovation at 3M and investigates how the company’s workplace culture and management strategies encourage and support staff to be active members of its entrepreneurial culture.

As a result of reading this Case Study students should be able to:

  • Discuss the role and importance of innovation and product development at 3M
  • Describe how 3M supports a culture of innovation.
  • Evaluate the success of 3Ms entrepreneurial culture including the relationship between 3M Australia and DFAT


3M is a global diversified materials science company and a powerful, diverse and integrated enterprise.

What is innovation?

3M prides itself on being a customer-focused organisation.

Developing a culture of innovation

One of the most celebrated aspects of 3M’s entrepreneurial workplace culture is the 15 percent rule that encourages employees to explore and work together to generate ideas.

Creating innovative applications

The Australian passport is the most widely held identity document used in the Australian community.


3M has emerged as a global leader in providing practical solutions and is home to some of the world’s most recognisable brands.

To download this case study as a free pdf, click the button below:




3M is a global diversified materials science company and a powerful, diverse and integrated enterprise. Although 3M identifies its core competency simply as “applying coatings to backings”, the company’s operations extend far beyond this. 3M, famous for its consumer brands such as Scotch® Tape and Post-it® Notes, also creates thousands of industrial products used by manufacturers and service providers to create their own products.

From its beginnings in 1902 as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, 3M has grown to achieve sales revenue of $US25.3 billion and an operating income of $US3.5 billion in 2008. The company has over 79,000 employees with approximately 13 percent employed directly as technical staff. As a truly global presence, 3M services almost 200 national markets, and operates subsidiary companies, such as 3M Australia, in more than 60 countries. Almost 64 percent of 3M’s entire sales revenue originates from international operationsWith a vision “to be the most innovative enterprise and preferred supplier in the markets we serve”, 3M prides itself on its history of innovation – reinforced through its brand promise, “practical and ingenious solutions that help customers succeed”. Key values underpinning 3M’s continual success include its commitment to: • Satisfy our customers with superior quality and value • Provide investors with an attractive return through sustained, high quality growth • Respect our social and physical environments • Be a company employees are proud to be part of. 3M has 45 core technology platforms ranging from adhesives, biotechnology and films through to nanotechnology, optoelectronics and wound management. The 60,000 products developed through these technology platforms satisfy consumer needs in six marketfocused businesses.New product development and innovation are the cornerstones of 3M’s continued success. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, innovation is: “The process of introducing new or significantly improved goods or services and/or implementing new or significantly improved processes”. 3M celebrates its long history of innovation by turning innovators into company legends. In 1925, Dick Drew famously visited a customer’s auto production plant and discovered that the growing demand for two-tone cars meant that workers needed a solution to create cleaner paint lines. After some research, and testing, a new product – masking tape – was born. Product development occurs when investment in research and development leads to new and innovative products. This usually involves phases such as idea generation, testing, engineering, prototype creation, commercialisation, manufacturing and marketing. It can take many years for a product to reach the market and product development also represents significant capital investment; hence 3M uses the term, ‘patient money’.

3M adds 500 innovative new products every year to its 60,000+ productline. Many of these products are ground-breaking, newly-invented products, unique in the marketplace and protected by patents.

3M's six businesses

  1. Consumer and Office: Adhesives and wovens such as Scotch® brand, Scotch-Brite®, Post-it ® and more.
  2. Display and Graphics: Films for electronic displays, touch screens, reflective materials for highway safety and more.
  3. Electro and Communications: Electrical tapes, copper and fibre-optic cabling and more.
  4. Health Care: Medical, surgical, pharmaceutical and dental products and more.
  5. Industrial and Transportation: Abrasives, specialty adhesives and tapes, as well as automotive, aerospace and marine industrial products and more.
  6. Safety, Security and Protection Services: Respiratory protection systems, anti-counterfeiting security films, cleaning products and more.


What is innovation?

3M prides itself on being a customer-focused organisation. “We understand our customers’ expectations and make sure that we exceed their expectations…Loyal customers stay with you, are more receptive to new products and recommend you to others.”

The customer-focused organisation is an important part of continuous improvement and Total Quality Management (TQM). A TQM organisation consists of a number of interdependent internal stakeholders or customers. These individuals, groups, departments and units supply to, and rely on, another individual, group, department or unit within that same organisation. These internal customers combine to improve quality throughout all processes and create better quality output for the end-users; the external customers. This philosophy of 3M applies equally to internal customers, demonstrated through the interdependence of its 45 technology platforms and diverse global operations; as well as to external customers.

Each of the three broad categories of innovation applies to 3M.

1. Innovation in goods and services occurs when new and improved goods and services are developed or where new uses are found for existing goods or services. 2. Innovation in operational processes occurs when organisations implement significant positive change in their methods of production of goods and/or services. 3M describes the four fundamental reasons driving innovation as; personal satisfaction, competitiveness, growth and survival. New products are the lifeblood of 3M and the company builds innovation into all of its operations. 3M’s innovation is the deliberate product, “…of a complex set of principles and practices which support and encourage the coupling of technology and creativity to satisfy customer needs.” It is also no accident that 3M, a company driven by cuttingedge technological innovation, believes that successful innovation is in reality accomplished by its people. 3M’s senior management empowers employees to work with determination and imagination to create innovative solutions. Customers are consulted so that they can provide input and feedback to the process of innovation and product development. This commitment to inclusive leadership resulted in 3M ranking No. 1 on Chief Executive magazine’s 2008’s Best Companies for Leaders list. A further strength of 3M’s organisational structure is that 3,000 of their 10,000+ technical employees are located outside the USA. These technical employees work in research-based laboratories in 34 countries or in Customer Technology Centres in 30 countries. The result is a highly-skilled global workforce uniquely positioned to create proactive solutions in response to specific customer needs. This localisation of innovation is demonstrated through 3M’s diverse research and development centres; optical manufacture and testing in Poland, electronics in Japan, water filtration in India and dental products in the UK and other markets. 3M provide locally-based product development resulting in customised solutions that subsequently result in global replication through the entire company.

To support innovation, 3M allocates 6-7 percent of its entire sales revenue ($1.4b in 2008) to research and development. This heavy investment also means that staff can devote 15 percent of their work time to self-directed projects. It is no surprise that the company was ranked World’s 4th Best R&D Company in 2007.


Developing a culture of innovation

One of the most celebrated aspects of 3M’s entrepreneurial workplace culture is the 15 percent rule that encourages employees to explore and work together to generate ideas. Product development is driven by the cross-fertilisation of ideas and new technologies shared across the entire company. “Products belong to divisions, but technologies and ideas belong to the company.” 3M has developed six principles of innovation to support this culture.

Build a Vision Effective leadership means that employees understand the importance of achieving 3M’s vision. Innovation is a cornerstone of 3M’s self-image and the company prides itself on a culture of success stories by celebrating the achievement of its people. The importance of innovation is communicated and reinforced which replicates success. Foresight It is vital to, “…anticipate the structure of the future before it arrives.” 3M can solve articulated needs, whereby the customer knows and communicates what they need; as well as unarticulated needs, whereby 3M proactively provides a solution for a problem that the customers don’t yet realise they have! Going beyond 3M sets goals to challenge their people to strive for significant improvements. One objective is to generate 30 percent of all sales from new products introduced in the past four years. However 3M’s commitment to stretching goals is demonstrated through an additional objective; to cut the time for new products to reach the market by a further 50 percent. Empowerment Back in the 1940s McKnight said, “Hire good people and leave them alone”, and this philosophy is still paramount. 3M’s management believes that employees need freedom to achieve their goals. Empowered employees are given both responsibility and accountability for key tasks. The company trusts employees, provides direction, support and resources, with minimal interference. This collaborative management style is effective when dealing with intrinsically motivated and highly-qualified professionals. Communication 3M feels that successful people need to work with others. Management communicates the vision, employees communicate opportunities to management – the dialogue extends into multiple channels throughout the organisation. 3M use technical forums, trade fairs and conferences to encourage networking and ideas sharing. Staff use part of their 15 percent self-managed time to help people from other areas. Networking occurs internally across platforms and externally through customer feedback and joint ventures. Staff can be transferred locally and globally and apply their particular expertise on projects. This adds value by sharing both expertise and the experience of 3M’s diverse global culture. Rewards and recognition 3M believes that the most effective type of reward is recognition through technical and corporate awards and promotions. 3M’s celebrated Innovator Award is given to individuals who use their 15 percent self-directed work time to develop a new product or technology. The highly prestigious Circle of Technical Excellence honours extra effort, motivation and creativity. 3M have a dual career structure that maintains parity between technical and corporate staff. Outstanding technical employees can be promoted into positions such as Corporate Scientist or they can move into management with the same opportunities for salary, benefits and otherprivileges. This encourages topperformers to stay with the company.



Creating innovative applications

The Australian passport is the most widely held identity document used in the Australian community. Over many decades the Australian Government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has built a reputation for producing high quality, innovative passports that are recognised as being amongst the most secure in the world.

Since the early 1980s 3M has worked collaboratively with DFAT to deliver a series of unique laminates that secure the data page against fraudulent alteration. The data page contains the holder’s personal details, signature and facial image. To manufacture security laminates, 3M leverages a range of core technologies and processes including adhesives, vapour coat processing, optics, moulding and specialty materials. In the early 1980s, the practice was to adhere a photograph of the passport holder to the data page and cover it with a security laminate. While best practice at the time, it was open to the risk of fraudulent photo substitution. DFAT, in partnership with 3M, innovatively applied advances in digital printing technology to issue a passport with a colour facial image and signature digitally printed into the passport, a world first in passports. This evolution occurred over three phases, Dawn I, Dawn II and Dawn III. Dawn I was designed to create a passport with a laser printed machine readable zone (MRZ) and was successfully introduced in 1985. It was the first passport in the world to achieve 100 percent reading accuracy in the MRZ and set a new standard. A patent was lodged on behalf of the Australian government to cover what became known as ‘reverse imaging technology’ and 3M were engaged to commercialise the technology. Dawn II used the reverse imaging technology to directly image a black and white photograph into the reverse side of the laminate, a world first for DFAT and 3M. Dawn III built on the technology developed in the preceding phases of the project and culminated in the first passport with the holder’s facial image and signature digitally printed in full colour being issued on the 4th May 1994. The 3M laminate also contained new covert security features including images of the Australian Coat of Arms, which were visible under coaxial light, and three stylised kangaroos securing the signature label and a corner of the facial image. These innovations were another world first for DFAT and 3M and significantly reduced the security risk of photo substitution and data alteration. In 2003, the next generation of 3M laminate allowed DFAT to add the first ‘floating image technology’ seen on passports. Lasers were used during manufacture to create images of kangaroos and emus within the laminate that appear to ‘float’ above and sink below the surface as the page is viewed from different angles. In 2009, the 3M laminate was redesigned and enhanced to incorporate a continuous Australian wave pattern visible only under UV light. Today, this is one of the key features used by border control authorities to validate the integrity of the passport.




3M has emerged as a global leader in providing practical solutions and is home to some of the world’s most recognisable brands.

Although a technologically-oriented company, 3M feels that its success stems from the quality of its people. 3M has a diverse global workforce of naturally inquisitive and highly-trained technical specialists that is supported throughout the entire corporation by a progressive and people-centred management philosophy. 3M delights both in reinforcing the principles laid down by some of its key early executives and also celebrating the ongoing success of its current staff. With a continual emphasis on innovation and product development 3M is committed to finding solutions for its diverse group of customers. Management is also committed to encouraging and supporting staff in their pursuit of excellence. The company attributes much of its success to the 15 percent rule which allows staff to search for proactive solutions for difficult problems. For a company whose core competency might be described as ‘making things stick’, 3M has developed an innovative entrepreneurial workplace culture that its stakeholders seem more than happy to be stuck with.


(Page 1 of 6)
Associated with:
Learning Area(s):
  • Business Environment | Developing organisational culture
  • Business Environment | Mission and Objectives
  • Business Structure and Organisation | Aligning structure to objectives
  • Business Structure and Organisation | Forms of ownership of large organisations
  • Communication | Effective communication models
  • Communication | Team-based communication
  • Entrepreneurship/Innovation | Fostering innovation within business
  • Entrepreneurship/Innovation | Innovative business
  • Entrepreneurship/Innovation | Product/service innovation
  • Human Resource Management | Employee Motivation
  • Human Resource Management | Performance management
  • Management Skills | Communication
  • Management Skills | Role of leadership
  • Management Styles | Effective styles in management situations
  • Marketing | Product development
  • Operations Management | Quality management approaches
From: Edition 6

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter the (*) required information where indicated.
Basic HTML code is allowed.

Subscribe today!

Purchase a subscription today!

We are delighted to offer you a subscription to access over 80 additional case studies, learning activities, teacher notes and downloadable content!
Click here to log-in if you already have an account.

Order the print version!

Order a hard copy!

Purchase a print version of Edition 7 for yourself or additional copies for your school! 

Commission a case study for your business

If your company or organisation would like to be part of Australia & New Zealand's best case study resource, apply for a case study online or phone us on 
02 4991 5577 in Australia and 0800 990 999 in New Zealand.

What's New?


New Edition 7 case studies available now!

Buy a printed copy of Edition 7 case studies.

Subscribe now to get access to over 80 additional case studies and support material.

Teaching Resources

Learning Resources

Useful Resources
Need to contact a teaching association?
Or get ideas for class?
Check out our useful links.

Teaching Hints & Strategies
Share your lesson plans with other
professionals or search for ideas here.

Tell us your favourite case study?

What Is your Favourite Edition 7 Case Study?

Log in / log out