Formula 1 spreads innovation

Travelling home yesterday evening, I was unusually listening to the BBC’s Radio 4. Unusually because we usually drive to classical music, but the Prom wasn’t to my taste and we did need the radio on a BBC station to ensure we collected the traffic reports as we travelled.

So we heard a report on the In Business programme about McLaren’s Formula 1 racing team, and a new venture called Maclaren Applied Technologies (MAT) which is creating a spin-off business by applying the F1 team’s approaches to help other businesses innovate. It’s grown rapidly from a handful of individuals to around 250 people. It’s worth a look (or in this case a listen).

F1 lives by innovation. Racing cars develop significantly between races, to short timescales of one to two weeks. Not only that, but there is significant process expertise too. A pit stop will lift a car, change all four wheels on a car, put it back on the road and have it accelerate away in less time than it takes to read this: perhaps two seconds. All down to well practised team work: each person ready, in place with the right equipment, and knowing exactly what to do.

Now MAT is helping other businesses. They offer their experience in areas like advanced sensor technology, and large scale real time data handling. Not Big Data for the sake of Big Data, but identifying what’s needed to resolve a problem or monitor and improve a process: and then having the technology and the expertise to gather the data, and to analyse and report on the necessary timeline. Not forgetting the teamwork, process-based innovation which gets their cars through their pit stop.

Examples cited included other sports, of course: GB Cycling, and rugby, working on the performance of athletes and their equipment. It’s perhaps a natural development of that to equip individuals tackling their weight problems, so that they can be made aware of their “energy burn” during different physical activities from walking to house cleaning: this in partnership with a doctor’s practice (about 11 minutes into the broadcast).

And (at about 14 minutes) the conversation moves to my old company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). GSK have had an established partnership with McLaren for around three years now.

Clinical trials are a large scale and, of course, critical element of drug development. GSK is moving this data gathering from retrospective (trial participants’ records being mediated by a clinical partner and reported perhaps monthly) to real-time, using MAT sensor technology. Not only does this provide more complete and more robust data; it can of course speed the process of getting a valuable treatment to market. Crucially, too, it helps failures to be spotted sooner – hence reducing overall costs to the company, costs which can only be recouped through successful products.

And then, still in GSK but in consumer-health manufacturing, McLaren’s pit stop expertise (remember?) comes back. GSK makes several toothpaste brands. No, they’re not all the same inside the tube and the line has to be changed over for a different batch. For McLaren, the speed of the pit stop changeover wins races. Applying this to manufacturing changeover has, it seems, created operator pride in the speed with which it can be achieved – and saving time, quite simply, gets more toothpaste to market.

Of course, conventional management consultants might tackle some of the same problems. McLaren see their differentiator as this: theirs is engineering-led innovation rather than analysis-led innovation. They come at things from a doing angle, not a thinking-about angle.

The broadcast is available as a podcast or download, not the usual time-expiring iPlayer replay. It’s worth half an hour of your time.

Now, how about applying pit stop thinking to the process of software release and upgrade?

Links:
• Fast and Furious, BBC podcast from Peter Day’s World of Business, 7 Aug 2014 from BBC Podcasts and Downloads
• Maclaren Applied Technologies
• MAT In the News features some of the examples cited in the BBC programme, including obesity monitoring and toothpaste manufacturing
GSK McLaren partnership, from GSK.com

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