Structured approach is the secret to successful R&D management


Phil Kennedy, Head of External & Digital Innovation at 3M, describes his company’s unique approach to fostering a culture of collaboration and innovation

Phil Kennedy, 3M

Phil Kennedy joined 3M while he was completing his PhD and it started his passion for new product development. His latest role as Head of External & Digital Innovation is in helping the company respond to the digital revolution and build an ecosystem of external collaborators to help drive growth through providing technologies

My first year at 3M was very hard, writing up my PhD in inorganic chemistry while starting a new job – 3M was far more interesting than writing up the PhD but I forced myself to finish it!

My first job at 3M was in technical service (nowadays called application engineering), which was the bridge between the lab and customers and included a whole host of responsibilities, such as trialling new products, feeding back customer needs and understanding customer processes.

When a position came up in 3M France I moved to join the European Adhesives lab; the whole European experience was great, and it was wonderful to be a 25 year-old in Paris.  Following this role, I moved from sticky stuff to reflective road sign materials, which are completely different technologies, but I made good use of what I had learned on the adhesives side and the application engineering function.

As my career progressed I moved from technical engineer to technical management, which led to roles in regulatory affairs and e-business as well. From this I moved over to the ‘dark side’, which is how many in R&D then regarded marketing. I was a marketing manager for about five years and then a business manager for a couple of years.

Introducing Six Sigma for design

Structured approach is the secret to successful R&D management

A big turning point for 3M, and for me personally, was when Jim McNerney came over from GE to be the CEO of 3M, bringing with him a different approach to process optimisation across the whole company – Six Sigma – which also touched R&D management.

With the move into Six Sigma process improvement, I became a Six Sigma ’Black Belt’. The underlying principles were DMAIC (define, measure, analyse, improve, control) – the precursor to LEAN.

I think R&D was the only community where DMAIC Six Sigma was not immediately embraced; they couldn’t see the immediate benefit of it, because a lot of them were working at the front end of the innovation process, where it was felt by many that too much structure impeded creativity.

However, the second wave of Six Sigma – Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) – had a stronger R&D focus and that community bought into it wholeheartedly. DFSS brought in a company-wide stage gate process for new product introduction (NPI), from idea through to commercialisation.

A basic tenet of DFSS is that it is a joint responsibility between marketing, sales and the labs (encompassing the lab and manufacturing technologies) to take products through this NPI process.

The understanding is that you work together from the idea phase onwards, and it was only in the later stages that you separate out more into different activity streams (marketers go off and produce your literature, manufacturing work on scaling up and optimise production, etc.). Even then there’s still a connection; the functions continue to work together.

I enjoyed those years, particularly doing Design for Six Sigma, which we did as pairs, so you had a marketing black belt and a technical black belt. I was a marketing DFSS Black Belt, building on my experience as a marketing manager, even though I’ve got a technical background, and I think this helped me in later senior technical roles.

Aligning technology development with business objectives

Coming out of DFSS I headed up 3M’s new business acceleration team – a mixture of technical and marketing people who put into practice the Design for Six Sigma methodology that we had developed. This involved working with the various 3M businesses on real projects as a way of not only driving those projects forward but to also embed the NPI process into 3M’s businesses.

Transition to digital


At 3M we use technology scouting to combine external technologies with our own to accelerate growth. To support this, I recently took on the role of head of our external engagement activity with universities, catapult centres and SMEs.

Digitisation is a big disrupter and we are helping the business to embrace it. In this case I’m talking essentially about IoT, how to make our products connected, data enabled and intelligent.

That’s quite a daunting task so I am looking at each of our corporate growth platforms and mapping these to where there are 3M centres of excellence in the UK.

Working with universities

We were already dealing with several universities on an ad hoc basis, but this year I have built a strategy around the areas that we are particularly interested in, identifying the key universities in those areas and putting together a tiered strategy, with various levels of engagement.

Working with the catapults

The government supports ten catapult centres. The most relevant to us as an industrial manufacturing and materials company is the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, with its seven sub-catapults, including the Advanced Manufacturing Centre, Research Centre, Manufacturing Technology Centre and National Composite Centre.


One of the other areas I am looking at is participating in collaborative R&D, using UK government Industrial Strategy Challenge funding through Innovate UK. Central to this is understanding the mechanisms and the areas where we can and can’t access grants. Navigating the various Research Council funding streams has been something of a challenge, but very interesting.

It is an exciting time and I am interested in getting involved with R&D Today to engage with the wider community.