Performance at the Limit – Business Lessions from Formula One

In 2013 the Williams F1 team finished 9th in the championship with five points some 591 behind the winners. This was a low for the team who recognised that if they were to return to their championship winning ways they needed a new approach. Part of this was to hire veteran engineer Pat Symonds as CTO who was charged with turning round the team.

Here Symonds talks about what he found when he joined the team, what he did to help bring Williams back to the front and how these lessons might apply to your organisation.

The First 100 Days

Symonds joined Williams in late 2013 and was given a free hand by the board to reshape the team as he saw fit. He explained that F1 is no longer the same place as it had once been. The days of big breakthroughs are now gone and it is all about incremental improvements. Like many other businesses the world of F1 is now cost constrained so, for example, rather than running the wind tunnel 24/7 they are only allowed 65 runs a week so every one has to make a difference.

On arrival Symonds spent the first 100 days observing the team at work to see what worked and what did not. He discovered that there was a lot of infighting between the different departments and that there was a blame culture that had built up over a number of years. “One of the first things I did on arrival was hold a meeting with all the department heads which quickly descended into an argument over who was to blame for the problems” said Symonds.

Racing Business Performance Forward

It was evident to Symonds that a change in the culture at Williams was required and that “culture was to be an enabler for strategy”. This meant reversing the blame culture in the team starting by “identifying the problem and not the person”.

The culture of an organisation is set by the leader of any organisation and can be felt the moment you walk into reception. For example at Ferrari you get a feeling of family, McLaren is clean and clinical and Williams just comfortable.

Symonds believes that a great leader has to be open, transparent and honest. He demonstrates this by holding an all staff meeting each Tuesday after a race where he explains what went well, what didn’t and how they are going to address any issues.

He also believes that leaders have to find a way to motivate their teams even if you aren’t in a winning position. He cites the Williams team’s performance in improving pit stop times as a prime example of this.

A Pit Stop Case Study

In 2015 the sports governing body introduced an award for fastest pit stop achieved over a grand prix weekend. The quickest stops take just over two seconds and anything above three seconds is considered slow. During 2015 Williams’ stops were routinely the slowest and not once did they win the fastest pitstop award.

On the back of this poor form Williams formed a working group to look at every aspect of the team’s pit stops from the wheel nuts and air guns to the performance of the people themselves.

Over the course of a season a typical team carries out between 1,500 and 2,000 practice pit stops and conventional wisdom is perceived that practice makes perfect. What Williams actually found was that it was making the pit stop team complacent and that bad habits were becoming ingrained through repeated practices.

Having researched the issues the team were able to make changes to their procedures and personnel to a point where they have had the fastest pit stops of all teams in every race so far this season – a huge turnaround.

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But the team doesn’t rest on it laurels. After each race it analyses the pit stops and a report is produced covering all aspects which runs to 16 pages. Symonds cites this as where incremental improvements are reaping big benefits for the team.

Handling People

People are the key to every organisation and it is the same in Formula One. You want “people to think as individuals but work as team players” say Symonds. He also points out that creative people can also be difficult but you need to recognise this and adapt to take this into account.

In the end what is important is “not who you hire but who you fire”. You have to have the right people in the organisation and shouldn’t be afraid to move those out that aren’t working in the same direction as the organisation.

At this point the discussion turned to the troubles over at Mercedes. This was just a couple of days after Hamilton and Rosberg had clashed at the Austrian Grand Prix. Symonds said that he respected the fact that they allowed the two drivers to race each other but the situation was unsustainable and will have to be broken up eventually as it is too “fractious”.

He also made a comment about how you deal with the fact that half the race team is effectively working to ensure their driver beats the other. To this his reply was simple “I tell them to take a look at their pay cheque to see what it says at the top. It says Williams.”.

Conclusions

Pat Symonds was hired to make a transformation at the Williams Formula One team. Since his joining the team they have gone from a lowly 9th position in the championship in 2013 to finishing third in both 2014 and 2015. This is a remarkable achievement given they beat some much better funded teams.

This improvement has a number of benefits for the business. Firstly, there is a financial gain as the teams receive funding based on their championship position. Next they are able to attract more sponsors who know they will receive greater exposure. Finally, there is the human impact as the employees have started to believe in themselves again.

You can read more on how businesses can learn from Formula One in the book Business Lessons from Formula 1® Motor Racing;.

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