Follow These Guidelines To Innovate Well


A talk at the Back End of Innovation conference by 3M Healthcare’s Heather Webb discusses how the company manages to innovate in a complex business.

3M has 46 business platforms. Each business unit can use these platforms to pull together unique solutions, says Webb.

“I like to think of these as a chef making omelets from an omelet station, choosing from applications and technologies,” she said.

The area explored in the presentation is the Central Sterile Supply Department, which is where medical equipment is decontaminated, sterilized, packaged and stored.

3M is the leader in sterile processing monitoring. From tape that changes color to chemical indicators that show time and temperature to the biological indicator, 3M has developed the tools that define sterilization monitoring.

“As the leader, we knew it was time to disrupt ourselves – to find such new products as a biological indicator that gives a faster indication. If we didn’t, someone else would develop it,” she adds. “So, we took the concept to leadership and fought hard. We saw this possibility of disruption, heard rumblings of competitors developing faster indicators.”

First, the team went out into the first and listened to customers. Overwhelmingly, they were satisfied with the current offering. So, the team had to learn the holistic nature of their customers’ jobs to see how they work.

“The question was, how can we add value to their job? The insight was that if we could reduce the process from three hours to one hour, it would be a value-added win.

“At 3M we have a three phone call rule, where someone can help me with a technical solution.” This asset was helpful.

Advice for overcoming the dilemma:

Planning: Planning gets everyone on board. Advice: Be fluid and communicate.

Teamwork: Teamwork “equals friendship.” Build a strong team dynamic.

Financial acumen: Everyone should understand the financial implications of every choice.

Vision: Your team must have a vision of how your customer is going to use your product. Vision serves as a guidepost.

Triple constraint in project management: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.”

3M manufactured two indictors and challenge packs, and it was a commercialization success. The team reduced the actual time from three hours to 30 minutes. What made the project a success: intimacy with customers, knowing what customers most wanted, and the technical team’s belief that the problem could be solved.

Also, the products fit into 3M’s existing go-to-market strategy. Enrolling the business and the marketing teams meant that the company got the help we need to complete and launch the new products swiftly and effectively.

Michael Graber, managing partner of the Southern Growth Studio, can be reached at