If you’ve ever watched motor racing, you’ve likely been in awe of the pit crew. A team of two dozen individuals changes tires, fills the fuel, and checks the aerodynamics in a well-choreographed series of actions. How well they execute can make the difference between getting the checkered flag and being seconds behind.
“It’s often a criticism of Formula One that the same team wins every year,” says Mark Gallagher, author of The Business of Winning: Insights in transformation from F1 to the boardroom. “What you’re actually seeing is the best organization sustaining high performance every year. And once they crack that formula, almost by definition they’re going to keep on winning, because they have found a way in which to work together that delivers that kind of sustained success.”
Gallagher, who worked in senior leadership roles within Formula One racing for 30 years, says the way pit crews work together is a great analogy for how businesses should run. Leaders can glean several lessons from studying the pitstop mindset.
Everyone Must Know Their Role
One of the most important parts of having a fast pitstop is that each crew member is certain about their role. As you can imagine, joining a pit crew team, which is made up of 22 individuals, is a prestigious job. Before they can achieve that status and start traveling with the team, they’ve worked in the factory for one to three years training in practice sessions.
“We climatize them to see how it feels to be part of a pit crew,” says Gallagher. “During a pitstop, there are 36 tasks that need to be completed in two seconds in a certain sequence. Each member has a specific set of tasks and only several tenths of a second to complete them. They don’t have time to check to see that someone else’s has completed their tasks. This is about simultaneous delivery. They need complete confidence that the other crew members will have carried out their task correctly.”
The goal of training is for each team member to improve their performance by constant repetition. In a business setting, this can mean having employees training with mentors on a specific type of project before they’re tapped to lead their own.
“Eventually, everyone in the pit crew can carry out their tasks seamlessly,” says Gallagher. “The pitstop becomes almost an automatic process for them. It’s not about a peak performance; it’s about sustaining consistent high level pitstop performance over time.”
Align Around a Common Goal
In racing, getting the checkered flag is the objective. In business, winning can be an outcome, too, but what does that look like?
“If you’re employing someone to do a job, make sure they’re very clear about the requirements you have for them and how they help the organization deliver its targets,” says Gallagher.
In business, lack of alignment can make it hard to meet the objectives. “A pit crew is not 22 individuals all doing their own tasks, working in silos,” says Gallagher. “Seamless delivery is only possible by those 22 people working as a closely networked team of people.”
Working toward a common goal requires psychological safety where every member of the pit crew is honest and transparent. “That means if you’re having a problem, you can put your hand up and say, ‘I’m struggling with this particular aspect,’” says Gallagher. “If there are going to be any issues in delivering this ambitious set of tasks, those issues must be escalated with a sense of urgency so that no one’s hiding the fact that they’re having difficulties.”
Psychological safety also means getting rid of blame. “Whenever something goes wrong in a race, the media loves to point to someone who didn’t do their job properly—maybe a wheel got stuck,” says Gallagher. “In Formula One, our successes and failures are very public, so there’s no point in hiding our mistakes. It’s about creating an environment of support. Inside a Formula One team, we look at the person who’s struggling and have huge empathy, realizing that could easily be me in that position. We find out what can we do to help them to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”
Strive for Continuous Improvement
To get the outcome you want and stay on track, teams need to measure and review actions, striving to improve performance.
“What I’ve seen during my career in terms of pit crews is nothing short of astonishing,” says Gallagher. “Until 1982, if you had a pit stop at a Formula One race, it was because your car had a problem. In 1982, the Brabham Formula One team decided to have a pit stop as part of their race strategy. They started the car with a very light fuel load, and that enabled their car to be super fast, because it was much lighter than the competition. They were able to make a pit stop, fill the fuel, put new tires on and finish the race, and it was it was a winning strategy.”
That first pit stop took 30 seconds. Since then, it’s gone through an iterative process of continuous improvement, arriving at a world record of 1.82 seconds in 2019.
“It is remarkable to look at how that has evolved, but it’s not been lots of small steps,” says Gallagher. “We’ve had several big jumps where we’ve gone from 30 seconds to 20 seconds to 15 to 10. And then in most recent years, we really in the last decade, we’ve gone from what was a six second pitstop that everyone thought was amazing, down to two seconds, which is done today.”
Pitstops are recorded and the tools have sensors collect and record data. After a race is over, the manager reviews the performance of the team to find places where they can be better. This can be done in business with regular check-ins, milestones, and post-mortems, looking for places where performance can improve.
Formula One racing is a good example of what happens when you equip a team of people with the tools, planning, and ambition needed to carry out what’s possible. “It looks like a superhuman achievement, but these are ordinary men and women who actually have a primary job as a technician,” says Gallagher. “The pit crew job has a secondary tole in winning, yet it’s completely critical to our performance in the race.”
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