Lessons from the fast lane

2 October 2018 | By Justin Stanton

Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari during Formula 1 Test Days at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya

What can Formula 1 teach construction about productivity gains and improved outcomes? CM, in partnership with ACO, looks at how the industry could benefit from analysing the strategies of Ferrari and Mercedes. By Justin Stanton.

What pops into your mind when you think of Formula 1: the glamour and glitz of the Monaco GP? The smell of burning rubber and the wail of screaming engines? A victorious driver spraying champagne from the top step of the podium? F1 is all of those things but primarily it is a “billion dollar engineering war”, according to former Williams team chairman Adam Parr.

The methods by which F1 teams compete in this war are applicable to businesses in any industry. What then can construction learn from F1?

We must start with defining what it is that a team like Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull do. Mark Jenkins, professor of business strategy at Cranfield University and co-author of Performance at the Limit, offers this definition: “Start from the premise that the one thing F1 teams do at an incredible rate is learn – they learn incredibly fast because they have to learn incredibly fast; if they don’t, they fall back down the grid.”

The central point of the learning process is the act of reviewing. “If there’s one lesson you can take from F1 now, it’s to start reviewing everything you do,” Jenkins says. “Make it a routine that you spend some time reflecting on what’s going well and what’s going less well; can you understand your issues, near misses for example, and address them to ensure they don’t happen again?

Race off with GP tickets in F1-themed competition

Contractors could win tickets to the British Grand Prix or £2,000 as part of a Formula 1-themed competition that will test their communication, planning and problem-solving.

Race Team Manager, run by ACO Technologies, offers top-scoring teams the chance to attend the Grand Final at Silverstone to race it out on the ACO Carrera Slot Car circuit in a bid to win the top prize.

The competition begins on 2 September with the Italian Grand Prix. Teams of between two and five can enter at:

“If you only review when things go wrong, the process easily becomes one of allocating the blame.”

Ah, the dreaded b-word: blame. There’s a lot of blame in construction, but essentially F1 teams can only function effectively with a ‘no blame’ culture.

If you watched the Austrian Grand Prix this year, you will know that the Mercedes team made a mistake on strategy, costing Lewis Hamilton an easy victory. Before millions of watching fans, Mercedes’ chief strategist James Vowles apologised over the pit-to-car radio to Hamilton “Lewis, this is James… It’s my mistake… I have thrown away the win.” In the post-race interviews, Vowles was backed by Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff.

Jenkins notes: “That says something about the culture at Mercedes that Vowles felt comfortable in doing that; in not only saying it to the team, but also saying it to millions of fans watching means that he felt supported. The top teams know that the moment someone is under fire, the learnings are lost.

“If a leader weighs in and says ‘whose fault is this? I want them fired’, you can imagine the impact that has in terms
of how open and honest people are going to be. What you want is the opposite, where people say ‘I made a mistake’ – an environment where people can be honest, because that helps everyone move forward.”

Water management specialist ACO has been inspired by the best practice of F1, as its managing director Richard Hill reveals: “The no-blame culture in F1 is important to us. We reworked our goals, values and culture to ensure it was at the centre of everything we do. A no blame culture is key to innovation: we want to encourage our staff to innovate and provide a constant stream of ideas – the F1 analogy helps us to do that.

“We recognised that we were the market-leading surface water-management brand, partly due to our consistent focus on innovation, but over the years we have gradually learned from F1 that while innovation is critical, much of the real gain comes at the ‘boundaries’ of what we already know.

“We realised that we needed to focus even more on what sometimes appear as the small things like improving response times for technical support to customers which help keep projects moving; providing cloud-based design software so that customers can create drainage solutions for their specific project at a time and place that suits them; through to small product details like how gratings are secured to our Qmax channel, making the product easier to handle and install on site.”

Jenkins again: “You have to constantly reinforce the no blame culture – it’s not something you can ever relax on. And that’s [down to] leadership, not just communication but following through on behaviour.”

The Ferrari team puts pit stop training into practice in the Shanghai Grand Prix

The role of leadership is crucial, providing a clear set of objectives to focus on and communicating that mission effectively. Jenkins suggests construction managers must “prioritise the critical areas of performance” – and that’s something Aecom has realised.

David Philp is the global BIM director at Aecom and chairs the Chartered Institute of Building’s digital special interest group. He is a passionate advocate for the benefit that can be derived from F1’s best practice after watching the Williams team at close quarters. “An F1 team asks ‘how can we design a car to go faster?’ For us, it’s thinking that design quality goes beyond the construction process and into service provision and ‘how do we offer the best user experience?’

“A clear sense of purpose is something we focus on now. It takes time to do this; it’s not the what, where or when [of a project], it’s ‘why are we doing this for our client?’ We’re not just building assets, we’re building better outcomes – it’s not about building a new railway, it’s about moving thousands of people safely, for example.

“We use a lot of workshops to understand stakeholder needs, we formulate a plan from that and we measure it with smart metrics. Not only are we learning, but we’ve got systematic learning.”

Further reading and viewing

Performance at the Limit, by Mark Jenkins, Ken Pasternak and Richard West (Cambridge University Press); Total Competition, by Ross Brawn and Adam Parr (Simon & Schuster);

Formula Success can be viewed here.

Philp highlights that Aecom is incorporating the plan-do-review mantra: “[What we call] ‘healthy starts’ are there to ensure a project is set up for success, mining data from the last project to see what went well but importantly what didn’t.” This loop closes not with client handovers but “soft landings” and post-occupancy evaluation using data capture and analytics – which then help inform the next project.

Philp adds: “The construction industry needs to see itself as much more information-centric and outcome-based. Like making an F1 car go faster: is the built asset going to perform better?”

If we accept the definition of F1 as an engineering war, then one of its greatest generals is Ross Brawn: the “manager” responsible for delivering F1 world titles to Benetton, Ferrari and his eponymous team, before laying the foundations of glory at the current Mercedes team. His stint at Ferrari – the Michael Schumacher years – is a great example of leadership delivering clarity, change and consistent success.

Prior to his arrival, the Ferrari team was highly factionalised, with each of the key departments (engine, chassis and aero) working seemingly independently. Brawn inspired them into appreciating that their collective mission was to deliver the best Ferrari – the complete package where engine, chassis and aero worked in harmony.

Crucial to Brawn’s success at Ferrari – an organisation that until he joined had been ruled by fear and riven by internal politics – was his introduction of the no blame culture.

In Total Competition, former Williams team chairman Parr notes: “[Brawn] exemplified the principle that strategy is about winning, not fighting. The only place that he allowed conflict was on the racetrack, and then only between his whole team and the other [teams].

“Conflict uses up energy and resources; it creates external risk as people seek to outwit and undermine you; and it creates risk of internal division – the ultimate danger for any organisation.”

Aecom’s Philp notes: “We’re finding more and more that we need to blur the edges between those that operate and those that design and build; each member of the team understanding what all the other members of the team do is hugely important.”

Indeed, blurring boundaries should not be limited to your team; Jenkins states: “The critical thing is to integrate your suppliers and partners into your projects, your business and your reviews; arms-length, transactional relationships won’t help – you need a strategic relationship where you learn together to improve the product.

“[In F1] reviews are inclusive – the teams bring their tyre and fuel partners into the process. With thousands of gigabytes of data to help them, they can understand what went wrong and what went well.

“An F1 car is a joint venture – it’s only as good as those partners.”

The Pit Stop Challenge part one

Richard West’s F1-inspired training has spurred on infrastructure teams in London and Melbourne to reach new productivity levels.

The most obvious example of exemplary teamwork in F1 is the pit stop. Without refuelling to worry about, pit stops now routinely take less than 2.5 seconds.

The speed and, crucially, the precision is achieved not only through significant human resource (nearly 20 mechanics) but clarity of job roles, communication and an emphasis on continual improvement through review.

Richard West held senior roles at McLaren, Arrows and Williams, working with serial winners Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, and is a co-author of Performance at the Limit.

He firmly believes that F1 can teach businesses how to improve, and uses the so-called Pit Stop Challenge – experiential training that involves carrying out a pit stop on a real F1 car – to help improve communication in teams and emphasise the need for and value derived from reviewing.

Richard West and rail workers undertake the Pit Stop Challenge in Melbourne

In the mid-noughties, he was contracted by Metronet to review its track sleeper replacement programme on the London Underground. With only a four-hour window to access the track, Metronet teams were replacing four or five sleepers per shift.

West describes their process: “You had to unclip the track, remove a section of track, then get the huge old sleeper out of the way, and then replace it with a concrete sleeper, and pack it in, re-secure the track and make sure it ran straight.”

West spent a week with teams, reviewing their processes. He noted plenty of time wastage and a lack of direction. However, rather than simply share his findings, West put the track maintenance teams through the Pit Stop Challenge at the Acton depot. He says: “After they’d been through the challenge, we’d ask them ‘from what you’ve learned today, how could you make a difference working underground?’”

Ideas were bounced around, resulting in a new solution that involved jacking up sections of track with the sleepers still attached then detaching and removing those sleepers, with the new sleepers boxed in with fast-setting cement and the track ultimately lowered back into position.

The teams found an extra half-hour’s productivity and increased the average number of sleepers replaced to between 16 and 18. “When it was audited at the end of the first year, the initiative had made savings of £64m,” West reveals.

As a result of this success, West was contracted by Metronet in Melbourne, Australia, to deliver the Pit Stop Challenge programme to 1,500 infrastructure staff. The result was double-digit productivity improvements and AUS$9m saved.

The Pit Stop Challenge part two

Willmott Dixon is learning from F1’s platform-based approach.

Pit stops in Formula 1 have improved from taking minutes in the 1950s to taking scant seconds in the modern era, in part through innovation in technology, but also through “over-resourcing”, with nearly 20 well-drilled mechanics working concurrently.

“F1 teams can justify the over-resourcing because it gives them their desired outcome: the rewards more than offset the extra cost of resource,” says Tim Carey, national product director at Willmott Dixon.

“We don’t often look at things that way in construction. In F1, they practise pit stops and do the same thing time and time again, which we don’t do in construction – we do it differently every time. It’s a platform-based approach and they keep learning.

“As a construction industry, we need to get to a consistently delivered product time and time again with a platform-based approach. And that’s what we’re trying to do at Willmott Dixon.”

This article has been produced in association with ACO


What a brilliant insight and piece of learning. This is one of the key reasons why MMC and Offsite construction are a clear future path in the industry,as long as it is coupled with a culture that pushes the team ethic to remove the whole 'blame' issue.

Andrew Richardson, 3 October 2018

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