Flat management structures and a no-blame culture are crucial to create innovation, a leading figure from Formula 1 motor racing said yesterday.
Speaking at the inaugural NCE Future Technology Forum, Advanced Williams Engineering chief technology specialist for lightweight structures Iain Bomphray drew parallels between motor racing and construction.
He said the two industries wrestled with the same “real-world” problems.
“We need to deliver the product on time, and go through the same supply chain issues,” he said.
Bomphray added that the most successful and innovative teams boasted “healthy” cultures and empowered individuals. Having expected an aggressive culture when he joined the Williams team, he was surprised to find a nurturing environment.
“Things go wrong and I think that’s the time when we really perform well. It really frees things up when you know that you won’t always get it right. As a racing team that enables you to push the boundaries a bit further. You can make mistakes, it shouldn’t be a barrier.
“We are very clear in what we have to do and when we have to do it. We’re not encumbered by unwieldy management structures,” he said. “Our management structure is very flat but it’s also quite vertically integrated.”
The Formula 1 team uses the “Workout” management process, in which critical problems are solved by those closest to developing and implementing solutions. The concept was developed by GE in the 1980s.
“We will create small teams within the [team’s] matrix structure and a key feature is that we have a decision maker in the process who enables us to progress quickly throughout the structure,” he said.
When he was asked by a member of the audience how a no-blame culture could be balanced with effective management, Bomphray said: “There’s nowhere really to hide in a racing team, we are accountable but we are empowered at the same time.”
Bomphray said there are two ways in which the Williams team develops its racing cars.
The first is through the principal of “marginal gains”, where it is always searching for incremental improvements. The second is by searching for a disruptive technology that would deliver the next big advantage.
He pointed to the use of carbon fibre in the 1970s as an example of a disruptive technology. He said he thought big data had the potential to be equally advantageous.
“We’re also fairly highly instrumented now. There’s a fair amount of data that comes off the car. This is where we are supported by a large electronics firm, he said.
“Their big data department came to us and said ‘what would you like to measure?’ and our technical director replied ‘everything’.”
The team has adopted Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems, which Bomphray said were similar to the building information modelling systems in construction. Despite being a burden at first, the system has gone on to become the lifeblood of the team.
“We organise it in different ways with different levels of access and it becomes interrogable at different stages of the building and design process,” said Bomphray.
“Every nut, bolt, washer is digitally modelled and contained in a digital mock-up and it evolves constantly.”
Safety is built into this system because it allows for traceability of components and identifies which engineer has serviced and signed off each component.