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The Geeks Get Loud

3M may be the greatest idea factory in the world—smarter than Apple, more innovative than GE. But has Minnesota modesty been holding it back?

The Geeks Get Loud
Photo by David Bowman

Mauro Porcini wants to talk about laahv—love, Italian style. It’s late afternoon and we’re in a conference room at the Maplewood headquarters of 3M, where Porcini is the chief design officer, overseeing product designs for the company’s 45 divisions. And because he’s wearing a pink sportcoat, pointy loafers, and a black silk scarf, and because his voice sounds like the Trevi Fountain looks, I’m inclined to let him talk about anything. “When you laahv somebody,” he tells me, “you want to surprise them. You want to create the unexpected, the extraordinary, the magic. When you want to satisfy somebody, you do everything possible to satisfy, no?”

He smiles innocently. “That is my goal,” he says. “I want to laahv our users.”

For more than a century, 3M got away without laahv, without style at all, really. Its best-known products—sandpaper, Scotch tape, Post-it Notes—do not announce themselves so much as simply work, and the same could be said of its employees. As Porcini talks, his coworkers stream past in 3M’s inconspicuous unofficial uniform: slacks and sweater. It was, and still is, the quintessential Minnesota company.

But times change. In 2002, Porcini was recruited to romance 3M customers, at first only Italians, who appreciate good styling in general, and then everyone else. Just 27 years old, and still in his native Milan, he tapped Pininfarina, the design firm renowned for its work with Ferrari, to redesign a line of video projectors. The result, resembling space-age binoculars, doubled the products’ sales and earned 3M its first major design awards. Porcini is now overseeing the design of tape dispensers that look like high-heel pumps and one that looks like an amiable dog with a bowl (the designers’ working name for him was Ralph).

In 2010, Porcini was relocated from Milan to Minnesota. He bought an unassuming rambler in Hopkins, put a massive stone lion in the front yard, and painted it fluorescent pink (his favorite color). “Design is an English word,” he says, describing Italians’ instinct for style, “we just feel it.”

He and his wife, Elisa, a former Gucci designer, gutted the home’s interior, creating a kind of open-plan playground. “You walk in and your jaw drops,” said a recent guest, a former design director for Target. There’s a Frank Gehry cardboard chair, a Jacuzzi that fills from a narrow spout in the ceiling, and, in the living room, an example of what he considers one of the best-designed products in the world: a spider-shaped Philippe Starck juicer. “The juicer is absolutely not functional,” he says without annoyance. “You use it and juice goes everywhere. It’s like a joke in the design world.” Not that he would use his version—it’s gold-plated.

“I laahv to talk about this juicer,” he says, “because it’s a point I like to make: give the people what they want. If they just want styling, you give it to them.”

He lets this sink in. And then, as though remembering where we are, in a state where more fleece is flaunted than gold, he smiles shyly and says of the juicer, “This, of course, is extreme provocation.”
 

Last fall, Porcini opened a design lab at 3M headquarters and began integrating design into 3M’s ambitions at the highest level of strategic planning, right from the start of product development.

Sometimes the strategy is just to show off. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York recently displayed a dress made of 3M fluorescent tape. This spring, 3M threw a party at the hip SXSW festival in Texas to display futuristic technology like the Virtual Presenter, a cutout of a foxy sales rep with a video projector aimed at her from behind, creating a hologram-like appearance as she “talks.” It’s as though the three M’s in 3M are no longer Minnesota, mining, and manufacturing, but moxie, mischief, and—Porcini’s second favorite word—magic.

Change was overdue. Over the past decade, while companies like Apple flaunted high design and tightly crafted images to stand out in a crowded marketplace, 3M struggled to define itself. It hasn’t helped that 3M, unlike Apple, has an enormous and diverse array of products: 55,000, according to the company, a number so large you just have to take 3M’s word for it.

Most of the innovations—adhesives, tapes, screens, grips, filters, scanners—are hidden inside other products, making your smartphones touchable, your roads drivable, your planes flyable. 3M is ubiquitous and anonymous; everywhere and, in the consciousness of consumers, nowhere. In 2009, a survey found that just 14 percent of consumers were familiar with 3M, a substantial drop from 2001.

3M’s design push is now just one part of an ongoing strategy to better communicate its knack for innovation—to shout it, in fact. “We’ve been a humble Midwestern company that hasn’t been flashy or loud,” says Glenn Carter, 3M’s director of innovation marketing. “We may be the most fascinating company on the planet, but nobody knows it.”
 

 

It’s hard to believe there is anything particularly Midwestern anymore about 3M, a $27 billion company with some 80,000 employees spread across 65 countries. Its new CEO, as of a few months ago, is Inge Thulin, a Swedish native who succeeded George Buckley, a Brit. Top executives rotate through its far-flung offices like corporate diplomats, and the headquarters in Maplewood is no different. “It’s like a mini-United Nations over there,” says one former
executive.

And yet, 110 years after five businessmen began digging around Two Harbors for minerals to make abrasives, 3M remains deeply embedded in Minnesota—and vice versa. It owns a private resort called Wonewok on a lake near Park Rapids where, for decades, it has wined and dined clients and rewarded top employees in classic North Woods style. It runs a country club called Tartan Park in Lake Elmo for 3M staff and retirees, who play golf, tennis, and bocce ball together and marry off their children in the lovely gazebo. It oversees the largest concentration of private employees in the state at its headquarters, a museum-quality specimen of Jet Age corporate campuses: 39 buildings on 417 acres with 8shuttles ferrying around 11,000 employees, many of whom literally grew up in the shadow of 3M—as did the generation of 3Mers before them and the generation before them.

“3M had a dump in North St. Paul,” recalls Dave Kolander, a retired vice president of 3M’s occupational health and safety division. “And when I was a kid in White Bear Lake in the 1940s and ’50s, they would sometimes start a fire at the dump on weekends, to burn it down a little, and that’s when we knew that fresh stuff had arrived. A buddy and I would sneak around, grabbing rolls of tape to bind up our toy guns and baseballs, and I thought, ‘If they’re burning stuff that’s this good, that’s a company I want to work for.’”

Many Minnesotans felt the same way and, by the mid-20th century, Maplewood, Woodbury, North Oaks—essentially the entire east metro of the Twin Cities—was built up as a bedroom community for 3M workers. Kolander’s neighbors in White Bear Lake included “dozens and dozens of 3Mers,” he says. They worked together, lived together, played together, and even retired together. Scottsdale, Arizona, where Kolander now lives, is thick with former 3Mers. 3M holds an annual meeting there, to update retirees; about 300 people regularly attend.

As 3M grew, doubling in size between 1963 and 1967 and again between 1975 and 1980, establishing offices and laboratories around the world, it began to export Minnesota culture along with its products. “You can go to any 3M office anywhere in the world and you’re going to find a very similar type of persona,” Jeff Lavers, 3M’s vice president of marketing, sales, and communications, tells me one afternoon in his office at 3M headquarters. “Industrious, dedicated to doing the right thing—inherently Minnesotan.”

“But we’re also not boastful, we don’t brag,” Lavers continues. “You know how you can spot an extroverted Minnesotan? He stares at your shoes when he’s talking instead of his.”

Lavers notes, for example, that in a sense 3M reached the moon first—it made the material for the soles of Neil Armstrong’s boots. Had anyone at 3M endeavored to put its logo on the soles, the brand would have been broadcast in perpetuity through the famous photographs of Armstrong’s footprint. It might still be imprinted on the moon today. But, of course, no one did.

3M’s modesty has been compounded by the nature of its business: science and technology, which not only attracts introverts, generally speaking, but also requires discretion, so that intellectual property isn’t leaked. “We’ve had a tendency to be insular,” Lavers says.

That may be putting it, well, modestly. One man, William McKnight, ran the company from 1929 to 1949 as its president and until 1966 as chairman of the board (he continued serving until 1972 as an honorary chairman). And until 2000, every CEO after McKnight was promoted from within, preserving 3M’s unique culture like that of an isolated if successful island nation.
 

McKnight was not a scientist. He was a bookkeeper by trade. But he understood how to inspire the guys and gals in the lab: leave ’em alone. Employees, he said in 1948, should be encouraged to “exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.”

McKnight established 3M’s legendary 15-percent rule, which is still in effect: researchers can spend 15 percent of their time on projects unrelated to their current work—tinkering, playing with ideas. The policy spawned Post-it Notes and other iconic inventions and is so ingrained at 3M that, as one engineer put it, “You can feel it right down to your toes.”

Spencer Silver, the chemist who invented the adhesive used in Post-it Notes (“Not a glue! It’s not a permanent bond!”), retired more than a decade ago and now spends his days painting in a studio at the Casket Arts Building in northeast Minneapolis. He is nearly bald, with a close-cropped gray beard and glasses; a professorial Sean Connery. When I meet him at his studio, he has a stack of Post-it Notes on a table beside a new book that describes their invention: Imagine: How Creativity Works, by Jonah Lehrer. “Bunch of crap,” he says of the recounting. “Canned folkloric mythology. It didn’t happen like that.”

Silver came to 3M in 1966 and eventually went to work on adhesives for a boss he calls “an unusual man, kinda loose in the way he managed us. He encouraged us to just try stuff.” Some of this stuff was done on 15 percent time—“a Zen thing,” Silver says. “You didn’t account for it on a time sheet. It was kind of between the cracks, during lulls. I did some really strange things between the cracks.” He once grew lettuce on a machine he built, an Archimedean spiral, so that it developed vertically in a very tight space (“The butt of a lot of jokes,” he says, “but it actually worked”). And in 1968 he created an adhesive comprised of tiny spherical particles, each the circumference of a human hair.

“We were studying what happens at the interface between adhesive and surface,” he says, slowly pulling a Post-it Note off the stack then sticking it back on. “It’s what some poets have referred to as thin space, this ill-defined, ineffable plane.” Silver got what he was looking for on the first try: particles large enough and close enough together to create a permanently tacky bond yet small enough and far enough apart that something stuck to them could easily be peeled away. “Serendipity in spades,” he says.

Silver calls serendipity “keeping an open mind to events you can’t anticipate” and quotes the poet Denise Levertov to illustrate: “Vision sets out journeying somewhere, walking the dreamwaters: arrives not on the far shore but upriver, a place not evoked, discovered.” Put another way, Silver says, “When you start to mess around, things happen.”

To hear Silver tell it, 3M was a serendipity factory, if that’s not an oxymoron. Silver points to his artwork on the walls, each piece consisting of several paintings stacked together in a column, metaphorically separated by his interpretation of a thin space. “These are all experiments,” he says, “and if I thought about them too much, I probably would have talked myself out of trying new things. It’s like the Buddhists say: if you think about Nirvana, you’ll never achieve it.”

Back in ’68, he had no idea what to do with his new adhesive. No one did. He took it from one division to the next hoping inspiration would strike. It wasn’t until 1974 that another chemist, Art Fry, had a serendipitous thought while trying to mark his place in a hymnal. He built a machine at home to apply Silver’s adhesive to paper and nearly another decade passed before Post-it Notes were scaled up for mass production and marketed.

“You had to cultivate believers,” Silver says. “Work with them, pray with them. But I never had a boss who said, ‘Stop working on that.’”  

Silver retired in 1996, having spent almost his entire career in the bubble of 3M culture. He wasn’t there to see it breached for the first time.
 

 

Something happened to 3M in the 1990s, or rather something didn’t happen. Nearly every major corporation in America was changing, becoming leaner if not meaner—except 3M. Soon enough, its insular, lab-driven culture, with its de-facto credo of “now that we’ve invented it, people are going to want it,” as one 3M marketing executive puts it, proved no match for streamlined global competition. Sales were erratic. 3M stock barely budged during the late ’90s tech boom. In a business world increasingly driven by Wall Street, with its twin loves of buzz and efficiency, 3M’s old-fashioned reputation for eureka moments had become a liability. There was a sense, says Carter, that 3M was “a bunch of bumbling scientists who just discover these things.”

Then, in 2000, James McNerney was named the new 3M CEO, the first outsider to hold the post. Within days of the news, 3M stock jumped 20 percent. A disciple of General Electric deity Jack Welch, McNerney quickly axed 8,000 employees (about 11 percent of the workforce), cut expenditures by 22 percent in his first year and another 11 percent in his second. He implemented Six Sigma, a management protocol popularized at GE that attempts to remove variability and waste from a production process, starting with developing only those products that can be made most efficiently. Thousands of 3Mers were indoctrinated in the process and in turn taught their colleagues. “They drank the Kool-Aid,” a former engineer told me.

By the time McNerney bolted for Boeing, in 2005, manufacturing speed at 3M factories had risen 40 percent and profits had grown, on average, 22 percent each year. But 3M’s research and development labs were, by many accounts, deeply demoralized. Mention Six Sigma to former 3M engineers who worked through the McNerney years and they invariably sigh, raise their eyebrows, shake their heads. Current, profitable products took precedence over “blue sky” research, as the discovery process is known. The number of new inventions dwindled.
Fry declared at the time that McNerney, given enough time, would likely have killed the 3M mystique entirely. “What’s remarkable,” he said, “is how fast a culture can be torn apart.”
 

Equally remarkable may be how fast a culture can be knit back together, if in fact that’s what is happening at 3M. George Buckley, who took over from McNerney, was also an outsider. But as a scientist himself, he seemed to understand the conflict between creativity and control. He built the research budget back up and yanked Six Sigma out of the laboratories, calling innovation “an inherently messy process.”

3M is now trying to reignite the sort of idea-sharing between divisions that fostered Post-it Notes and came naturally when 3M was a much smaller company. Walls are literally being torn down throughout the headquarters and a central plaza is being constructed where employees will be compelled to cross paths.

Instead of trying to restrict invention, 3M is now trying to explain it, advertise it—get a little louder. It hired Porcini, of course, and, five years ago, it opened an Innovation Center at its headquarters, a kind of private science museum complete with a movie theater and dozens of displays (including a prototype of Armstrong’s moon boots) designed to dazzle clients with 3M’s technological prowess. It has similarly educated its own employees, grooming them through guidebooks and seminars to be “brand ambassadors” (some of the most eloquent have appeared in videos on 3M’s YouTube channel) and helping them to refine their “30-second elevator speech” on what exactly 3M does, so they’ll be ready when someone asks, “So what do you do?”

But some observers, including former employees, wonder if the push to talk about innovation isn’t solving a problem so much as covering one up: the ongoing struggle to bring 3M culture into the modern era.

“You wouldn’t have to talk about innovation if it was obvious,” says Travis Hoium, a former product developer at 3M who left in 2009. Hoium worked in various 3M labs in Minnesota, finishing in a blue-sky lab “where I was working on whatever I wanted,” he says. He has a handful of patents from those days. But he believes that as the company has grown, it’s inevitably lost some tolerance for risk along with the employee trust that McKnight advocated.

“Of course it’s not the 1960s anymore; the economy is different, things have changed for all large companies,” Hoium says. “But 3M was a family business. They built a golf course. Everyone was a neighbor. If you won a technical award, you’d get a week at Wenowak. If the executive plane was flying somewhere and you wanted to visit relatives there, you could ride along. That doesn’t happen anymore. ”

Hoium recalls a tech meeting in which Buckley was invited to address the engineers. “We thought we’d get some rallying, some inspirational talk,” he says. Instead, Hoium says, Buckley noted that Chinese workers toil for far less pay. “The takeaway was, if you don’t work harder, you’re all going to be fired,” he says.

Hoium now works as an analyst and columnist for the Motley Fool investment-advice firm, and while he hasn’t advised against buying 3M stock—he owns some himself—he has opined that the company’s innovative magic has been replaced by something else: predictable if profitable genericness. “3M got to a size and age where it wanted Six Sigma,” he says, “and once you go off that cliff, I don’t know that you ever come back.”

Many analysts have cheered the arrival of new CEO Inge Thulin, who marks a return to 3M’s insider tradition: he has spent 33 years working for 3M around the world. Jeff Lavers and other 3M spokespeople argue that the magic is already back, noting that sales from products released in the past five years, a gauge of 3M’s inventiveness, are expected to comprise 32 or 33 percent of the total this year, up from 21 percent in 2005. The goal is 40 percent, Lavers says, better than the good old days.

Even if the labs have regained their luster, however, the question now is whether 3M can ever grow out of its shell without breaking it. “What we’ve learned,” Lavers says, “is that we sometimes take the beautiful culture we have here for granted. The more customers know about it, the more they like it. But how do you bottle that magic?” In other words, how do you sell serendipity?
 

It’s not difficult to spot the Design Lab at 3M headquarters, though it’s nestled inside one of the nondescript Mad Men-era buildings. The ordinary tan floor tiles in the corridor suddenly snap to fluorescent pink carpeting, which meanders, stream-like, through the lab. (Porcini, employees say, is constantly inventing new nicknames for it, like “the pink river leading us to greatness.”) And there, suddenly, are bearded young men eschewing sweaters. Massive Post-it Notes about two-feet square—what they look like at the factory before they’re cut down to size—are stacked in the entryway. Fluorescent, of course.

“If you want the best designers in the world, you need the right space to attract them,” Porcini tells me. “But we had to make it easy for tech people to be comfortable here, too. Without interaction we would be, how do you say, a dead branch.”

The designers work in an open area: no cubes, no walls. Design manager Lee Fain, who calls himself “a right-brain thinker in a left-brain company,” has marked out a desk-side parking spot with tape (3M presumably) for the Razor scooter he uses to cross campus. On the periphery are eight brainstorming rooms for specific brands or divisions, like the Post-it Note room, where a deer mount covered with the stickers hangs from the wall, and the Scotch tape room, with its fluorescent green carpeting, a shade that Porcini knows best by its Italian name: verde olive.

Porcini’s office, dominated by a poster of Audrey Hepburn hanging askew behind his desk, is full of the latest, greatest 3M inventions. His favorite is a video projector so small you can carry it in your pocket. “You can project everywhere!” he says.  

He also keeps a tiny man nearby—the Little Tape Man. Created by the Milanese designer of Alessi’s playful kitchen utensils, he appears to be crawling on his belly. Scotch tape is pulled through his head and attached to his upraised foot. It was Porcini’s idea, back in 2004, to update the Scotch tape dispenser—after 43 years—with something provocative. It was displayed in exhibits and design books. Buckley had one on his desk. But ultimately the Little Tape Man never hit the market.

“Innovation is about risk,” Porcini tells me, “working on the fine edge of feasible and not feasible. But it was too early for 3M to embrace that kind of language.” He keeps the Little Tape Man close at hand “as a symbol of this journey.”
 

Tim Gihring is a senior editor for Minnesota Monthly.
 


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