There are two major issues highlighted in this case study: 1. Is the ‘lead-user’ process, an effective method for research and subsequent product innovation? 2. Should the Medical-Surgical Markets Division (MSMD) lead-user research team present its revolutionary new approach to treating infection to senior management despite the fact that it challenged the existing business strategy? The answer to the first question is ‘yes’.
By the mid-1990s the MSMD had not had a breakthrough product for almost a decade. The surgical drapes product had been very successful but there was little room for growth in existing markets, shrinking margins on existing products and minimal sales in developing countries (due to the high costs). Team leader Rita Shore had to identify new customer needs and new way of looking at the product or the division risked being made redundant. So the initial goal was to find a better/cheaper kind of surgical draping.
Through a combination of intense academic and field research, determining major trends and intensive workshops involving lead users from a variety of backgrounds the team was able to generate a list of concepts that it then further refined based on a system of metrics for ranking ideas that they had also created. The team was then able to recommend three product-line concepts to present: 1. An economy line of surgical drapes 2. A ‘skin doctor’ line of hand held devices 3.
An armour line that would coat catheter and tube in an antimicrobial coating So a pilot project for the lead user method had already resulted in one incremental innovation (economy surgical drapes) and two new product proposals (skin doctor and armour line). Additionally the team had identified a truly revolutionary approach to infection control – one that, if implemented, could not only open up an entirely new market for 3M but also mean the start of a whole new set of product lines and business opportunities for the company to develop – meaning a potentially major new income stream.
Finally the MSMD division team, under Rita Shor’s leadership, had successfully piloted and refined the lead user method of bringing together cross-functional teams with cutting-edge ‘coal-face’ customers and other experts. The template could now be rolled out to other divisions in the company. 3M’s future as a highly innovative organisation is assured. 3M is a company that was founded, and built its reputation and business model, on innovation. It fostered a certain slightly maverick, entrepreneurial spirit exemplified by the motto, ‘It’s better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission.
By the 1990s however innovation had come to mean incremental improvements and line extensions on existing products; genuine breakthroughs were becoming scarce. To counter this management instituted a policy that 30% of sales would come from products that had not existed four years earlier. Unfortunately for the team the division manager Sam Dunlop was still aligned the old incrementalist approach and he also mistrusted the qualitative, more open ended methods of the lead user process. Understandably many on the team were hesitant to recommend such a radical new approach, fearing that management might then reject all their suggestions.
It is the opinion of this summary that Rita Shor and the team should present their new approach to infection control. Firstly because they believed in it and had arrived at in by an exhaustive and stringent process, secondly because it made good business sense and thirdly because it is actually in keeping with the 3M company values. In the words of past president Richard Carlton, ‘3M earns such respect because of its improbable, almost defiantly anti-corporate nature. The company is gigantic, yet as innovative and full of growth potential as though it were a small venture. ’