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No blame - all gain

In high pressure situations openness and mutual trust are essential elements for success

missing image fileThe 2007 Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix provided a great example of what happens when a high-performance culture goes wrong. McLaren won the race with Lewis Hamilton fending off Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen and his team-mate Fernando Alonso finishing in fourth, so, you might ask, where's the problem?

The problem is that in the battle to win in Formula 1 every race can make the difference between the championship winner or second place, which in the words of McLaren's CEO Ron Dennis, makes you 'the first of the losers'. What went wrong was that McLaren should have been first and second, having secured the two fastest times in qualifying and should therefore have netted the maximum number of constructors' points, further extending their lead over Ferrari.

In the event a dispute between their two drivers led to Alonso being moved back to sixth place on the grid and McLaren being disallowed from earning any constructors' points for the race.

Teamwork is the essence

It appears that Hamilton ignored a team order to let Alonso go out first in the third qualifying round and that Alonso then prevented Hamilton from getting out on track in time to complete a final hot lap. Regardless of who may be to blame in this situation McLaren now faced the kind of situation that can quickly destroy any high performance culture whether it be in Formula 1 or in pharmaceuticals.

The essence of the no-blame culture is teamwork, and teamwork has a very specific meaning. To quote Ron Dennis again, 'A team is not just a word - it's' a way of life', and that is exactly what's at stake when a blame culture raises its ugly head.

Teamwork is when everyone is looking out for everyone else, stepping into the breach to help when needed, but also recognising the strengths of their colleagues and giving them the space to do what they do best. Like all good things it's very hard to develop and very easy to destroy.

The danger of the relationship between Hamilton and Alonso deterioriating into a blame culture is that it affects the whole team, as one driver is not prepared to share information with the other and therefore the team as a whole will not move forward as fast as it could. In F1 that means slower than those competitors whose drivers are working together to improve the overall performance of their cars and if you don't move forward as fast, you effectively move backwards.

The problem not the person The idea of a no-blame culture, sounds simple, but like most simple things in business it's far from easy to achieve. Let's take the example of the Formula 1 pit stop. A pit stop requires the changing of all four wheels and tyres and refuelling the car with up to 90 litres of regular grade fuel, this involves at least 21 individuals all with a specific job to do to complete the entire operation in under seven seconds.

On September 22 1991, at the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril near Lisbon, driver Nigel Mansell was leading the race for the Williams team and was a strong contender for the 1991 world drivers' championship when he made a routine pit stop. Everything appeared to go as normal and Mansell was released from the pit in order to resume his lead.

As he accelerated into the pit lane his right rear wheel broke away from the car and went rolling down the track. Mansell was stranded in a car with three wheels, he could not go back as this would involve immediate disqualification, the mechanics were also forbidded from replacing the wheel and tyre while the car was in the pit lane so Mansell retired, not only losing the race, but also ultimately the 1991 world championship.

So what had happened? Who had screwed up? Who should be fired? It is when things go wrong that you see the real evidence of a no-blame culture, and it is neatly summarised by Dickie Stanford, team manager at Williams: We don't hang anyone out to dry. You don't just point a finger at someone and say they're to blame. That doesn't help, because all you do is create bad feeling. You try to isolate the problem, not the person.

Clearly defined procedure

A blame culture rewards individuals for covering up their mistakes and obscuring why things went wrong, this means that the reasons for the problem cannot be fully understood and the organisation is unable to learn and move on.

In this situation it was found that the reason for the problem was a split wheel nut on the right rear wheel. As the mechanic raised his arm to ask for a replacement nut the 'lollipop man' (the individual at the front who stops and releases the car by means of a circular board on a long pole) thought the raised arm was a signal that the car was ready to go and released Mansell.

In reviewing the problem Williams totally revised their entire pit stop procedure. Up to that point, every individual would raise a hand to show that their task was complete. This meant that twenty-three hands would go up in a five foot wide area and the lollipop man would make a split decision to release the car.

After the review they revised the signalling to involve only the four individuals who did the last process to secure the wheel and gave them different coloured gloves to ensure they could be quickly recognised by the lollipop man. The following year Mansell did take the Drivers' World Championship and Williams went on to win five Constructors' Championships between 1992 and 1997.

Applying the principal

So how do these concepts work in practice and how can we instil them in other kinds of organisations that do not enjoy the same excitement and passion in their employees as is seen in Formula 1?

Undoubtedly, there are principles that have to be reflected in leadership behaviour such as open communication and effective delegation, in developing strategies and plans that are clear, simple and available to all, and in helping all organisational members to understand the link between their actions and overall performance. But perhaps the most important issue in all of this is building an environment of mutual trust.

This is the common denominator between these factors; if there isn't trust and confidence in colleagues, both within and across teams, then these levels of enhance-ment cannot be achieved.

It is only when individuals and groups within the organisation are able to be completely open about mistakes and areas for improvement that an organisation is able to make real progress towards the highest levels of performance.

Mark Jenkins is professor of business strategy at Cranfield School of Management, UK

2nd November 2007


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