August 7, 2014 at 1:00 am

Car Culture: Note to GM: Give 3M's culture a try

Innovative 'Post-it' firm has a Midwest ethos worth imitating

Recently, Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing (3M) received 52 new patents for its technology, which pushed the total for the 112-year-old manufacturing company over the astonishing number of 100,000 patents.

These days, the company is awarded about two technology patents daily in the U.S., and about six times that many in other countries (General Motors is about 2.5 times larger, and is granted about five patents a day).

From a rough start in 1902 of a failed abrasive mine on the supremely picturesque shore of Lake Superior near Two Harbors, Minn., 3M didn’t turn a profit until 13 years later. That’s when the company’s invention of sandpaper started a cascade of helpful items such as Scotch tape, moon-walker Neil Armstrong’s boot soles, and most famously Post-it notes. The invention of Post-its wasn’t merely a simple office products coup; it was a fundamental shortcut in business culture that made corporate America more efficient. 3M tested its sticky notes first in its internal executive offices, and surprisingly it found that top executives would act and respond to requests given to them on Post-its much faster than any other top-level communication method. Too bad there’s no patent for getting executives to act quicker.

Six years younger than 3M, GM could have used a bit of 3M culture to prevent the recent disastrous ignition switch recall dilemma. A lack of executive action is apparent in the May 29 Anton Valukas report, an internal investigation that reveals the “silo” culture that CEO Mary Barra says keeps top managers and executives from communicating with each other.

The report “paints a picture of a convoluted bureaucracy in which the ignition problems bounced from committee to committee, where the issues languished without being escalated up the management chain,” as Road & Track magazine recently explained. “Valukas calls this the ‘GM Nod,’ meaning that individuals left meetings indicating they would work on fixing the problem, but then did nothing. It was always someone else’s responsibility.”

Saying “That’s not my job,” is profanity at the fashion-conservative St. Paul 3M campus. Instead, there’s a saying: “You’re never more than two calls away from an expert with an answer.” Asking questions of any employee is practically a daily requirement. “When a customer calls with a complaint, they actually end up talking directly to me,” says product technical service engineer Sally Schultz. Imagine calling a GM powertrain engineer if the ‘check engine’ light comes on in your Malibu.

So as GM is searching the world for a replacement corporate culture model, copying the genius-worship cultures at Apple or Microsoft is likely too uncomfortable. But the Midwest’s 3M has worker lifestyles and values similar to Detroit’s, and there’s no fear in Motor City that restaurants will ban meat or gluten as we imagine has happened in Silicon Valley, or that bike lanes will replace all roads as we fear they’ve done in Microsoft’s Redmond.

But 3M is far different than GM. Fortune magazine in 2002 called 3M “A company that has always favored a laissez-faire approach of experimentation and doodling.” 3M’s key cultural point is that employees are allowed to try and fail. GM’s have rarely been allowed.

Prior to taking over as top car guy from Bob Lutz in 2009, GM’s former vice chairman, hot-rodder Tom Stephens, promoted an engineer for blowing the whistle on a flawed advanced V6 engine program, which led to pulling the plug on a new vehicle line. Stephens’ act of rewarding the behavior was sadly a rare occurrence, although it likely saved the company from an embarrassing fiasco.

Sharing ideas means all 3M employees own its massive numbers of patents, yet “We don’t usually see counterfeit products,” says technical specialist Todd Mathes. He explains that creating each product requires intellectual property from many of the 46 core divisions of 3M.

Cultural change starts at the top. Longtime 3M CEO William McKnight produced in 1948 a manifesto still in place today: “Mistakes will be made, but if the man is essentially right himself, I think the mistakes he makes are not so serious in the long run as the mistakes management makes if it is dictatorial.” What that looks like day-to-day is that employees are left alone for 15 percent of their time to experiment with projects that interest them.

So, my suggestions for GM: Throw away automated voice answering systems, give employees intellectual property ownership instead of stock options, let employees tinker and doodle every day, and replace smartphones with Post-its.