Motivating, Momentous, Masterful: What Businesses Can Learn from 3M in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Katherine Brock 

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At the start of the twentieth century, five men founded the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company for the purpose of mining for corundum, an extremely hard and versatile mineral ideal for making sandpaper and grinding wheels. The company failed, however, discovering only a low-grade, inferior mineral called anorthosite. Today, with corporate operations in seventy countries and sales in two hundred countries, the same company is a household name across several industries, including automotive, electronics, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, safety, and transportation, among many others. Most recently, the company served as a leading global provider of personal protective equipment (“PPE”) throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. This is 3M.

So how did 3M rise to meet the demand of the pandemic when governments and businesses all over the world struggled to do so? And how did it evolve from a fledgling mining company into a multi-industry, global powerhouse in the first place? Finally, what can governments, businesses, and the general public learn from 3M?

When the novel coronavirus swept the globe in the first quarter of 2020, countries took various measures to prevent or contain the spread of the virus. Many preventive measures adopted in the U.S., although polarizing amid the political climate, were hardly novel themselves. For example, quarantine and masks were also utilized during the 1918 influenza pandemic as U.S. soldiers returned home from World War I.

Since 1918, experts have warned of another pandemic, again and again. Despite ample warning and the historical use and benefit of PPE during pandemics, governments and businesses largely remained complacent. 3M Company, on the other hand, demonstrated remarkable foresight. Simply by continuing its commitment to research and development and mastery of cutting-edge science, the company poised itself to deliver when the world needed it most.

Long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 3M prepared and collaborated across sectors and industries to create innovative products designed to help the world in times of crisis. The company expanded manufacturing centers and invested in automated machinery and assembly lines that went unused for years until being put into operation to mass-produce exponentially larger amounts of PPE required by the pandemic. As a result, when called upon, 3M increased production of N95 respirators by more than 400% within a year, producing 95 million per month by the end of 2020 compared to 22 million per month in 2019. At the same time, due to partnerships 3M had fostered across both private and public sectors, the company received real-time market data to best align its production with consumer demand.

Beyond 3M’s foresight, strategic planning, and commitment to research and development—3M spends roughly 6% of its annual revenue on R&D, a significantly higher percentage than most manufacturing companies—the company’s agility is where we should all take note. Historically distributing PPE to industrial employees, 3M quickly and efficiently adjusted its supply chain to meet the demand for PPE among healthcare employees and other frontline workers.

Moreover, the key to 3M’s success is its holistic innovation strategy: taking technologies from one industry and adapting the same technologies to solve problems in other industries. In 2008, 3M began investing in startup companies that it foresaw bringing long-term value to the company and deliberately used its broad portfolio for knowledge sharing and problem-solving across industries. The company’s innovative drive even led to its use of dental technology in the automotive industry.

Companies across the globe may prioritize collaboration and innovation, but 3M’s dogged pursuit of flexibility, adaptability, and the freedom to pursue progress is what we should all learn. William McKnight, a former entry-level book-keeper who eventually rose to serve as chairman of the board once said, “Encourage experimental doodling. If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” Incredible words to live by—and 3M does. Company engineers and scientists are allowed to spend up to fifteen percent of their time “doodling,” that is, pursuing research, projects, and opportunities of their choosing, all in the spirit of innovation. Furthermore, motivating its employees to approach every idea, product, business, individual, and community with a sense of purpose is the very foundation of this innovation.

Honored by the Ethisphere Institute as one of The World’s Most Ethical Companies® for eight consecutive years, 3M built its success by “enabl[ing] [its] executives, managers, and employees . . . and shaping future industry standards by introducing tomorrow’s best practices today.” Introducing tomorrow’s best practices today…by anticipating and carefully preparing for a global crisis years in advance, 3M positioned itself to meet global demand for PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most importantly, the company did not kick its feet up in the wake of this success. Lesser known is 3M’s instrumental role in the production of recently-developed COVID-19 vaccines. Over the past thirty years, 3M has mastered filtration and purification technologies that serve the biopharmaceutical industry behind the scenes. Two of the company’s filtration and purification systems were vital to the production of these vaccines, and, once again, 3M rose to the challenge to meet unprecedented demand. This is a company that will never stop. Its assembly lines will never stop, nor will its momentum. It may be happy with its progress, but it will never be satisfied.