How to achieve the financial performance of a successful technology company: Think like 3M

As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, I’ve identified three themes companies employ to successfully  compete in a digital economy. This is the first: Relentlessly innovating and executing on those ideas.

Everyone loves a founder’s story. They often tell about experiencing some type of everyday problem and through a serendipitous event, a solution is imagined. This solution along with an unbelievable amount of hard work formed the genesis of a now highly successful company.

Sarah Blakely, founder of Spanx tells her story as a one-woman innovation wonder as do the founders of Uber, Airbnb and countless other start-ups. These journeys are driven by the sheer will of individuals who have the passion to see their ideas become successful.

Digital giants continue this tradition even as they have grown. Companies such as Amazon, Google and Tesla generate and experiment with new ideas that rethink their customers’ experience by using the advantages of technology to deliver scale, scope and speed.

For entrenched incumbents who have invested their treasure optimizing processes and raising barriers according to the rules of an outdated supply chain playbook, the future can be worrisome. They are now held captive by the fort that previously protected them.

Fortunately for incumbents, this scenario is not permanent. Just as Amazon and Google have remained innovative and adaptive as they grew, a few companies such as 3M have maintained their spirit of innovation (and outsized financial returns) for decades. By studying 3M’s method of innovation, it becomes clear that it has figured out how to create its own serendipity to generate new ideas as well as emulate at scale the same passion to execute as found in a start-up.

3M’s ability to innovate and execute is well documented. It often ranks highly as an innovative company. I won’t duplicate other’s good work, so you can read what I found to be some of the more interesting articles for yourself. There were two key findings for me. First is that 3M is organized to create and then execute on new products beginning with customer interactions all the way through to revenue conversion. It’s not a single department’s responsibility to innovate, it’s the way the entire company operates. Secondly, 3M has also put the mechanisms in place to stop funding projects and put people back to work on productive projects just as effectively as it begins new projects. Clogging the system with poorly performing ideas hurts performance as much as never funding good ideas.

With the barriers to all types of technology continually falling, a company’s biggest differentiator becomes orchestrating these technologies through its ecosystem to redefine what it delivers to its ultimate consumer. To do this successfully requires the ability to forget the current supply chain rules, have a deep understanding of the processes available to deliver product and services and an intimate understanding of the needs of its customers. That knowledge lies somewhere within your workforce. A leader’s job is to unlock that knowledge and act on it. How close is your company to executing innovation at the level of 3M or Google? How exposed is your company to a new competitor figuring it out first?


Some reading on 3M innovation

Succeed in your digital transformation by focusing on these three areas

When I prepare to speak to a company about the topic of Human Capital, the first thing I do is map out their industry, highlighting how their environment is changing through digital transformation. Each industry is different of course, but in general I follow these themes: New technology that is a part of their industry’s digital transformation, customers that are expanding into their business, complementary companies that have now become competitors and large and small natively digital companies such as Amazon or a startup that is entering this space.

If you are reading this blog, you likely know my discussion will go down the path that a highly engaged workforce will make sense of all this and figure out a path forward.

The feedback I received in my first couple of meetings is generally along these lines: We agree we need a highly engaged workforce and thanks for the ideas to help us achieve/maintain ours. But even with a highly engaged workforce, there are so many moving parts and the pace of each is so different, how do we point our workforce in the right direction…we have limited resources!

To answer this, I went back to the research I performed on the companies highlighted in my book Your Last Differentiator: Human Capital. Each of these companies already has a highly capable, highly engaged workforce. But the workforce isn’t enough on its own. In addition to a great workforce, these companies are successful at executing in three very specific areas.

They all:

  • Innovate relentlessly
  • Focus on what I call utilization^3 (pronounced utilization cubed – sorry, formatting is a little limited in a blog)
  • Deliver a superior customer experience

Each company approaches these in different ways, but each of these elements are present in every company.

My guess is that most understand 1 & 3 but might question the second. Utilization cubed means that these companies have identified ways to unlock underutilized resources in a dramatic way that their competitors have difficulty copying. As a result they themselves are highly productive or they offer a product or service that enables the downstream supply chain including their end customers to be highly productive.

The first dimension of utilization is simply the effective use of a resource whether it is a person, machine or material. All companies understand this dimension and apply methodologies such as Lean to achieve it. The second dimension of utilization is redesigning jobs to ensure that the skills of people are highly utilized. I write about Walgreen’s and Southwest doing this in my book. The final dimension of utilization is the ability to use crowdsourcing to unlock underutilized resources of others through technology. The most obvious of this is Airbnb leveraging underutilized homes, but there are an increasing number of interesting examples around this.

In researching these areas further, I have found a number of creative examples in each of these areas. I’ll share what I consider good practices in future posts to spark your imagination. If you have any you’d like to share, please let me know.



So that’s why I like WaWa so much!

In the mid 90’s I was a sales representative for a manufacturing company. My territory was the greater Philadelphia area. In those days, selling was primarily a face to face proposition. This meant that I spent most days in my car traveling to meet with customers in person. I was new to the area, but quickly became acquainted with the local WaWa. For those who are not familiar with WaWa, it is a convenience store. Not just any convenience store. It was the place that started my mouth watering when I thought about it…I LOVED their sub sandwiches. Whenever I had the chance, I would stop there for lunch. I moved to New Hampshire a year or so later and was very disappointed that I could not find a WaWa there. To this day I fondly remember WaWa and recommend it to anyone who is traveling or moving to that area.

Why do I bring this up? A co-worker was reading my new book Your Last Differentiator: Human Capital and started talking about her experience with WaWa. She had also worked with their HR department in the past and knows that they have focused on creating an employee friendly culture for years.

So I did a little research and lo and behold, I had not uncovered some hidden secret in the 90’s, WaWa has been known for their focus on customers and employees for decades. This was not a hold over begun by a paternal founder. WaWa understands that high levels of service differentiate a retail environment and that customers appreciate the small touches like when employees know them by name and what their favorites orders are.

WaWa also practices the servant leadership philosophy and provides a generous list of benefits to its employees, see below for a partial list…

  • Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP)
  • Wawa, Inc. 401(k) Plan with company match
  • Medical Coverage (including Prescription benefits)
  • Dental Plan
  • Vision Plan
  • Disability Coverage (both short and long term)
  • Basic Life & Accidental Death & Dismemberment Insurance
  • Supplemental Life Insurance (including dependent and spousal/domestic partner)
  • Flexible Spending Accounts (Health Care & Dependent Care)
  • Wellness Reimbursement for Weight Management programs & Fitness Center usage
  • Annual Wellness Screenings & Health Coachingcompared
  • Educational Assistance Plan
  • Employee Assistance Program
  • Employee Credit Union
  • PTO (Paid Time Off)
  • Critical Illness and Accident/Injury Benefits

This approach isn’t an Human Resources loss leader strategy vaguely connected to operational benefits. The employee friendly environment results in an industry leading low employee turnover rate of 22% compared to what are often triple digit rates for the industry as a whole. This along with high levels of customer service and unique innovations driven by its employees have also resulted in an extremely loyal customer base. One couple even had their wedding at the WaWa where they met as customers.

If you are struggling to connect employee engagement to improved customer satisfaction and industry leading financial performance, it probably wouldn’t hurt to study how WaWa operates. They are certainly not keeping it a secret. WaWa understands that it’s not the strategy that differentiates them from the competition, it’s the execution of that strategy: Hiring the right employees and then building an environment that brings out their best…that’s not easy for anyone to copy.

Want to learn more? Here’s a couple places to start, there’s even a book about its values:

CCRRC Releases Final Report on C-store Industry Employee Engagement

An Interview with Todd Lombardi, Director of Compensation and Benefits at Wawa, Inc.

Wawa: Rethinking the Convenience Store Experience

Creating the Living Brand


The Wawa Way: How a Funny Name and Six Core Values Revolutionized Convenience