It’s one thing to create an innovation that is technically brilliant and solves a problem in a unique way, says Mike Vale, Ph.D., Executive Vice President 3M Safety & Industrial Business Group. But if it doesn’t solve that problem at scale, it’s not helpful to society. Vale’s views are based on a career as diverse and broad as 3M itself. He began with the company almost 29 years ago as a research chemist before taking up a variety of roles abroad and at home, heading up manufacturing operations and company acquisitions. Now at 3M’s Minnesota headquarters, Vale is focusing on building the next generation of innovations and the digital transformations that will get 3M there. “Innovation is in the eye of the user,” says Vale. “And if you only have one person using it, it’s really not making an impact.”
We talked to Vale about bringing connectivity to the right products, how to empower your staff to do their best work, and the four essentials of digital transformation every company should know.
"Innovation for the sake of innovation is not the goal. Innovation to solve a problem at a relevant scale is the goal."
— MICHAEL G. VALE, PH.D., Executive Vice President - 3M Safety & Industrial Business Group
What is your approach to innovation?
Michael Vale: For the longest time our tagline was “3M Innovation.” I think today’s tagline more authentically captures how this company approaches society’s problems: “3M Science. Applied to life.” Our company has four business groups, 22 operating divisions, 51 technology platforms, and tens of thousands of products sold in 200 countries—how do you manage that level of diversity? I challenge our teams to think about the problems we’re trying to solve and talk through them with customers. A lack of technology is not our challenge—our challenge is framing the problem, then applying insights to create a solution, a solution that can disrupt and be differentiating. But even that’s not innovation. Because then you have to take the solution to scale in the market. And that’s why I spend a lot of time talking about science applied with impact. We’re a science-based company with tremendous technical depth and breadth, and we’re constantly seeking perspective and insight to frame problems our scientists can attack. Sometimes it can take years to find the solution. But when we find it, we have the resilience, commitment, intent, intensity, and focus to take that solution to scale across a wide range of potential applications, market segments and geographies. Innovation for the sake of innovation is not the goal. Innovation to solve a problem at a relevant scale is the goal.
How is 3M differentiating itself from peers in the market?
MV: You can make something technically different, and it might even be technically elegant or challenging. But if it’s not addressing a real pain point in a way that’s clearly visible to the user, then it’s not differentiating. It has to be relevant to the end user, clearly visible during use, and hard to replicate. Some of our strongest businesses in the group are built on clear differentiation. We’re a market leader in respiratory protection, able to take, model and manufacture highly proprietary, non-woven materials that have unique and incredibly effective filtration properties. We’re seeing that right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, with our disposable N95 disposable and reusable respirators. With our adhesives and tape portfolio we ended up creating products with a spectrum of properties, from materials that will bond oily surfaces to materials that help hold an airplane together. Our abrasives portfolio is also no longer just using amorphous, irregular rocks for sanding products, but engineered materials with specific shapes, orientations and functions arranged into different form factors.
What inspires you most?
MV: There are four differentiating, competitive strengths of this company: the depth of our technology, the breadth of our manufacturing capability, the intimacy of our global and market reach, and how the three of those come together. When I ask customers what 3M stands for, I hear a combination of the same three words: innovation, quality, and trust. That comes from the depth of our assets, our ability to take technology and insights and meld them into a product, to build products at scale, and to have trusted experts in the field. We deliver a high-quality product every day, all year long, with the same level of consistency anywhere in the world. I get so excited and inspired when I’m touching those levers and seeing them in action. I go into our product development labs and see the passion and possibility of what our people are working on. I get inspired when I go into our manufacturing plants and see equipment running at scale, pushing the boundaries of what’s physically possible. And I get inspired when I go into other countries and see how our teams are helping customers solve problems everywhere in the world. I get inspired every time I hear a customer or channel partner sit back and tell me: “I’m with 3M because you represent innovation, you bring me quality, and I trust you.” That’s super inspiring to me, and it’s where I get a lot of my energy to lean into the challenges.