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Driving a Culture of Agility and Curiosity: Strategic Approaches From McLaren F1’s COO

How to encourage innovation and drive resilience across your operations, from McLaren F1’s COO.

mclaren racing car

Conversations about technology and its implementation matter. However, you won’t be able to harness its full potential without also investing in the efficiency, curiosity, and culture of your team.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Piers Thynne, COO of McLaren F1, about some of the strategies its teams employ to stay as agile as the sports cars they create. We discussed all aspects of operations at McLaren, including the more than 17,000 parts that go into each car, the data that supports manufacturing, the data used for planning to ensure on-time delivery, and the potential risk to health working in such a high-pressure environment.

Some of the insights shared include rejecting blame culture and embracing failures as learning opportunities so your team has the freedom they need to be curious and innovate. As a leader, it is critical for your teams to keep their eye on the prize and remember it’s all about delivering a high-performing product and that every day is a day to learn. This one isn’t to be missed!

Watch, download, or listen to the full episode below. Thanks for tuning in.

Note: This is an auto-generated transcript, which may contain errors.

Shaun Cooney: Well, hello and welcome to Splunk Perspectives, a podcast about technology talk subjects for leaders by leaders. I'm Shaun Cooney and today I'm excited to be joined by  Piers Thynne, COO of McLaren Racing. Hello.

Piers Thynne: Thank you very much and lovely to be here.

Shaun: Thanks for your time today. So normally in these types of podcasts, we often talk about technology and how data can be used to solve specific problems, and that's great, but that's not really what businesses are trying to achieve. We really care about what businesses really care about, the why, not the how. So that's what we going to talk about today.

So Splunk and McLaren have a partnership where we help McLaren make business decisions using data. And often these decisions are very tactical decisions, but sometimes they are much broader decisions, business, strategic decisions. So that's what we can talk about today. You could call that business agility or organizational agility, and we thought who best to speak to that? An organization that has no choice but to be agile in the business that they are in.

So thank you for your time today. So maybe you could start by introducing yourself, your role here, and maybe if you can just talk a little bit about your career.

Piers: Well, firstly, thank you very much for inviting me. It's great to be part of this. So I'm Piers. I'm the chief operating officer here at McLaren F1. I've been in Formula One for 15 years. I've been the chief operating officer here for one year. Before that I was operations director. Before that, I was head of programs and I've always been heavily involved in the operational side of the business manufacturing and delivering performance to the car and always as part of that journey.

Data has been a massive part of what we do, and that is not only manufacturing data, operational data, but it underpins everything that we do from controlling how we organize the performance development of the car on the Bill of Materials issue, controlling that to managed change data to support manufacturing, planning data, to support on-time delivery through operations to the car.

And so it goes on and on. I mean, you could talk about the link from the digital link from end to end. It's long, but it is so important to us and data capture be that machine tools, be that on the car is very key to what we do. But it's not just capturing the data, it's actually using the data to drive decisionmaking.

And certainly on an operational angle, we generate a lot of data. But what we actually need to focus on is the agility and fast pace of a Formula One team; it’s very, very rapid at this time of year. It's actually what you do with the data and using multiple tools to manage by exception because we have 17,000 parts in manufacturing at the moment to try and build the car over the next week to get to the domino and then on to truck testing 17,000.

You can't manage all of that. What we can do is prioritize it, understand where things are going wrong and manage by exception. So the principles and philosophy of how we use data is key. So that's kind of where the business is evolving incredibly quickly. You'll see we have no motorsports anywhere in the factory anymore. Everything is on digital signage and certainly we are certainly not paperless, but we're very, very fast moving at dropping any inefficient process because every aspect of what we do needs to deliver performance.

So if you can remove 5% of inefficiency by going digital or going through an adjusted process, we will do it.

Shaun: 5% becomes a huge number. It does, Yeah, absolutely. So you're in a world where change and uncertainty is normal, you know, how do you handle that? Because that's a big change. A lot of organizations don't have that. That's not normal for them.

Piers: Let's talk about culture for a moment. You need to absolutely have people who are okay with that because if you if you are deeply uncomfortable with change, this probably isn't the right gig for you. Yep. And being able to have enough process that you can control something, just enough process that you can control and manufacture something as fast-paced as a Formula One car over a very, very small time scale.

That's kind of where we are at the moment. What's really, really important is culturally being okay to control what you can control and manage by exception. If you're trying to manage, for example, 70,000 parts, you'll you won't get very far and being okay to phase change. So we take simple and agile approaches to what we do and we break the year up into we're going to make a launch call.

We will then update that at the fastest rate that we can. So I've sat in a meeting this morning where we don't need tools, we just need good people having good conversations around not bigger than this, not with 100 people with 12. And there is aero representation, design representation, operational representation and commercial representation to make sure we're trading how you evolve change as fast as possible, because my role is to ensure that we're asking the right questions going, is there enough performance to warrant designing and making that part, or do you actually hold an aero for longer just a data point?

Because if it's a big step, then of course we’ll commit to making it. If it's not enough, depending on the scope of the project, it might be 500,000, a million or more to make that change on the car. So you're trading performance effort cost because under the cost cap you have to always consider getting the biggest bang for your buck. So we don't do that in tools. We do that in great minds and good conversations.

Shaun: It reminds me a little bit of the space race, for example, making the right decisions at the right time with the right technically savvy people. Yeah, technically in the widest context there, I guess at that point. Wow.
Piers: So of course, you can have as many graphs as you like. There's a little bit of gut feeling. Yep. Bravery. And you kind of have got to go for it. At the beginning of the season because if you look back at the results over the last 10, 15 years, people who win the first few races normally win the championship.

Yeah, and certainly when we are on a clear, a really positive trajectory as we are, we just want to continue that growth and certainly very humble has a long way to go. But we're humbled that we've made a step last year and we want to continue to make that same step this year as we move up the grid.

Shaun: Absolutely. Yeah. So bravery, that's a really interesting word. How do you foster that culture where bravery is rewarded?

Piers: And I think culturally it's important that when you move as fast as we do, you've got the right culture and not rules. But philosophy is underpinning it. So when things go wrong, which they do, we don't have a firing squad out in the yard. We take somebody out and go, Sorry chap, it's not you.

We actually kind of turn the pot and throw 180 degrees because the value and learning opportunity of something going wrong is actually development and kind of changing the optics on failure to go, this isn't something going wrong.

We've learned something. It's a path that we don't need to go down and you can go on this path instead. And using the individual that's been involved to support process development or whatever the root cause analysis to go, what happened? Why did that happen? It's okay for things to go wrong.

And that's really, really important to both myself and Andrea to go, We don't have any blame culture here because it means that people are free to be brave. And of course, bravery needs to be contextualized not to be blasé, not inappropriate. Why do we need to talk about constraints? Because if you talk about constraints, so a lot of people are going to have machines.

It's all too difficult. I had a long day yesterday. I have a long day today. You'll find yourself at the back of the grid and in a sport where performance is king. You kind of need to have technology, culture, and bravery all running alongside each other to push your team to always be going, What if? And the what if is where innovation comes, is where lighter parts come, is where more performance comes, is, where the better representation of data to allow you to make decisions in a fast way to deliver performance to the car.

So it's important and we talk about it directly and indirectly all the time. And it's funny, if you look back over the last year listening to Andrea speak, his messaging is really, really on point. Yeah, but whenever he and I speak, we always have a checklist. Where have we covered the following points, either directly or indirectly, because the messaging of every single all hands to the whole team for the last 12 months has actually been the same.

But it's just continually delivering the same message to get people to think, How can I deliver more performance? How can I unlock any constraints? What if, can we be braver? And certainly in some of the threads where we haven't found the team is good enough? What are we doing? How we helping, how we underpinning solid foundations to move the team forward?

Because a team that will win the world championship is world championship material in every single area and we audit where we are and where we aren’t and underpin where we are to go. Let's be brave. Let's make a big leap to make sure in time we stay humble, but we continue to make steps up. The grit.

Shaun: An interesting challenge you have in your job.

Piers: It's rarely dull.

Shaun: I suspect. So bravery, humility, innovation and the ability to be able to make mistakes and learn from the mistakes of feedback cycle. All important. Any other principles that you have.

Piers: One of the important things is sheer effort and determination and removal of waste and bureaucracy. One of the things to consider is, I always say if we been presented some data, is it more than three slides? And that's not because I've got an attention span, but go beyond the third slide.

It's just actually can you get your point across in three slides? Yeah, to move on to the next topic because there's so much depth in what we do. And of course large datasets may need more than that, but often you've got a challenge that individual has thought, I need to present this data. I want to do it in the best way possible.

I might want to go an introduction. I have lots of information. Let's get to the point. Let's get straight to the point to support collaboratively making that decision and moving forward. So short presentations, the shortest meetings or no meetings at all, being incredibly agile on the organizational design and very, very creative with how we work. Because we’re not a fan — the Formula One team — of organizational charts because organizational charts are a sign of sickness and holiday.

What we actually want to foster is collaboration. So co-locating people work together, unlocking where domain knowledge may be, creating barriers to development because someone may be an expert in something, but actually more people having that expertise and co-locating to cross fertilize that knowledge is really, really key. And being very, very agile with your thinking to go, Why does it have to be like that?

Because if the answer we're looking for is the highest performing organization, remove all the rules and it's important that we're always challenging ourselves and never being stuck in bureaucracy. Long meetings, presentations that are too long because it's all about delivering performance to the car. 

Shaun: Really interesting. Thank you for sharing. Some people would say that high performance for a long period of time becomes very draining and can destroy a team. How do you handle that at McLaren?

Piers: So everyone plays their part and certainly in our standard messaging that Andrea and I play as the team, often this is my topic of conversation. Everyone plays their part. So the power of a thousand people really makes a difference and it's important that everyone feels in whatever function of the team that they do, they are delivering. 

So ensuring that you are encouraging everyone to be on their A-game is paramount. Leadership of our people at all levels is also important because we do our utmost to consider welfare and wellbeing as part of what we do. And yes, at certain times of the year we may drink more coffee than others and certainly that feels like that today.

But we're building the car this week and that's not every week that we do that, but eating well, sleeping well, looking out for each other is really important. So that cohesive, collaborative spirit in teams is very, very much there. And good fun banter, but appropriate banter to go, actually, why don't you go home now? Because you've had a really tough couple of days coming early and tomorrow because ensuring that you're looking out for your workmates and your teammates is a really important, authentic part of being a leader.

And just we need to make sure and we try to get it right, don't always get it right, but manage that appropriately because everyone's different and everyone's endurance levels aren't the same. And that's all about knowing your people and being a good, authentic leader.

Shaun: And that applies to all organizations, not just Formula One.

Piers: It does. And certainly in in the modern world where everyone's going, Can I do more with the same? Can I remove cost? You've got to be authentic with your people to go. You can't just push push and push. You've got to try to give something back. And when there's a big deadline, ask a team to stretch into it.

But then when it's not, it's no problem to go home early to go, actually, why don't you go and spend the afternoon with your kids, pick someone up from school. Trading that and flexibility is really, really important. And certainly when I was mentioning earlier about rules, we don't have hard and fast rules about attendance because the quality and diligence of our people mean that we take a flexible, trust-based approach to that.

Yeah, and that's really important because that fosters the right spirit. If you get that right, people will go as far as they can for the team and that spirit then just grows. Yeah.

Shaun: It's a great culture. It sounds really good. So I'm sure over the years you've learned many things and I'm sure there's been some mistakes that you've made over time. That's how you learn, right? Yeah. Have you got maybe an example or two that you're happy to share with our viewers today?

Piers: Every day is a school day. I learn things here because it's just such a great place to work because you're amongst great people and I guess a couple of takeaways listen and ask questions is really, really important in a collaborative environment. I would say that's probably a mistake I've made in earlier parts in my career where I've maybe been on the front foot to try to impress and actually maturity has allowed me to go, I wish I hadn't done it like that because I might have actually progressed faster. 

So ask good questions and reflect and think about things. Don't rush into things to draw a conclusion. Actually, use the group around you to go, That seems like a logical angle to go about. But what do you think? Because when you're amongst a fantastic group of people here, certainly I've made mistakes in the past where I may have jumped to the wrong conclusion and gone down the path too quickly, and that's okay.

I learned from it. Yeah, but the realities are when you've got a little bit of time to reflect, ask opinions, get different perspectives. The value of different perspectives, I think is a really important one.

Shaun: Yeah, it sounds like you have a fantastic team around you as well, and that team bringing them perspectives together and trusting your team sounds really important. I'd like to say I'm jealous, but I won't tell my colleagues that. So Formula One and McLaren in particular is a fast-moving organization, fast-moving business. What do you think other organizations and other businesses could learn from Formula One?

Piers: So often people ask, Can I just come and spend some time here? Because you just listen and learn. Getting the balance of culture and process aligned is an important one. And I think in a post-COVID world where everyone has taken a different perspective as to how they treat and manage their workforce, it's important to think about are you getting the right balance of working from home, working in the factory, because that's different in every role context.

But one of the things that we are lucky about in Formula One and we do it through a combination of great people and just enough process is challenge yourself around the amount of bureaucracy you have because business continuity needs some process. But I always encourage people to go, Why does it need to be like that? So let's just take an example, start times, and I need to go and collect my kids or I've got a dentist appointment.

Why do you need to log any of that? Yeah, if you're just having good conversations and there's trust between a manager and an employee, if you don't log that, you haven't got any of that admin, but you've also got a really positive relationship to know that you're trading time to enhance that person's life and not give it back tenfold.

Yeah, and I would just encourage and that's just on the human side and the process side. When we're making a car, we make a product that is as complicated as something like a jet fighter, but we do it with such high quality people and enough process and bureaucracy that we don't deliver something that has issues or is unreliable because an unreliable car is hugely business impacting.

Yeah, so just enough process on the human side, just enough process on your product side and you will naturally go faster.

Shaun: Again, really, really interesting if you could choose another industry to be in based on what you've learned here at McLaren, could you pick one?

Piers: I don't think I've ever really thought about that. I think I absolutely love my job, but I love it on many, many angles because being part of a Formula One team is an absolute privilege on a day-to-day basis. But being part of a Formula One team that has got 60 years of incredibly positive, phenomenal heritage behind it is one of the things that in the last few years I've got more involved with and it's a real pinch yourself moment.

So celebrating 60 years of McLaren last year, I was responsible on two occasions for a phenomenal amount of our cars in this country and abroad running and the crowd and the fan engagement of that that’s a James Hunt car darts and Ayrton Senekal. That's an Emerson Fittipaldi car. Yeah, that's a Niki Lauda car. That's a Prost car. That’s a Hakkinen car.

That's a Lewis Hamilton car. I was like, This is just such a privilege to be a part of, so I'd like to stay here. I wouldn't like another job.

Shaun: I'm sure you wouldn't. It sounds like, well, I mean, the organization and I was walking around the boulevard earlier, right where at the McLaren Technology Center here in the UK. And it is fantastic. I love how the trophies are shown at the back row and at the front so that the whole team can get behind it right next to the restaurant. Everybody sees the trophies every single day. That's the culture that's been fostered here. I can see it as you walk in. It's really great.

Piers: And I guess although it's quite easy to just be working all day and come in when it's dark, go home. The building is laid out very deliberately to be you are less than a few meters all the time away from a racing car. Yeah. So it's very obvious why you come to work every day.

Shaun: It's a very cool building if you can say. So final couple of questions; in your industry regulation is it plays a big part. It continuously changes and it forces you to change and innovate. Most organizations, I would argue, don't see it, don't see regulations as a force for good. They would often see them as a burden. How have you changed that in this industry?

Piers: So I guess a couple of examples there. The regulations coming in around the cost cap, everybody is said whenever they go, that must be a massive burden. And my answer back was, it is and it isn't. You've got to think positively that's regulated the playing field, so that's pulled the top down but allowed potentially more entrants at the bottom.

And then there's the happy medium in the middle. But actually we were running just about at the cap at that time. What it actually created for us was an opportunity to go. We need to review all of our processes, could we be leaner? Because the processes around everything that we do, you've got to challenge yourself to deliver every bang for your buck to be as optimal as possible.

So that's a regulation that delivered something but actually was an opportunity, and that encouraged us to be brave again and take some risks. Because if you ask different people around the building, how many parts do you need to make? If you work in race logistics or on the car, you'd go, Well, I want lots of spares because this is an accident.

I always want to bolt something on you and that's okay. But the realities are you need a system across the whole team to go, well, I need just enough spares because there's no performance in spares. Yep, I need just enough there. And looking in the wind tunnel and looking at design of what's the lighter or faster option that's coming to go, We'll actually only make three of those, one for each car, one spare and the lady or gentleman in that department might be going, How about a minute? When's the fourth spare? The fourth spare we're not going to make because we're going to make the next iteration, which is faster or lighter than that one. Yeah. So that has encouraged innovation and leanness in the technical space. Obviously, the regulations changed a few years ago to be what we currently see on the track.

And again, that was thought out with lots of pragmatism to focus on safety. And it's really important that we do always talk about that because the evolution of Formula One cars was to be as safe as possible. Very, very important. And we fully support that in this team. But that's also whenever any regulations are written, we read it from start to finish and then also collaborate around it and go where our gaps, where are things where we can innovate to create more performance.

And every team will be doing that. So regulations aren't bureaucracy. They're always an opportunity and you just need to read them and think laterally, What does that word say? You can do what you can't do, but what could you do? And being really creative and innovative in that space.

Shaun: That's a fantastic way of looking at it. I wish more organizations did that rather than treat it as a burden. Yeah, correct. So final question from me then. Obviously, Splunk is a data company, and you have said just enough throughout this whole conversation about just enough people, just enough process, just enough leadership, just enough everything. How do you use data to make sure you've got just enough of everything?

Piers: So if you look across the whole organization, the Aero Department creates a huge amount of data through CFD and the output from the wind tunnel. The design function creates a huge amount of data and what you've got to do is make sure that that’s flowing — and flowing to guide your decision making, flowing to deliver performance, flowing, to manage change, flowing to deliver reliability flowing, to make the car go faster and never ever being a data burden.

And that's why it's important that the data is there to get you to do something, to make a decision, to change a part, to upgrade something, to make something more reliable. And we use all of the data for that. It's never just sitting there doing nothing. So it always has got to drive an outcome, not just fill up a computer.

Shaun: Not just be there for the sake of it. Absolutely. Well, thank you so much for your time today, Piers. I've really enjoyed our conversation.

Piers: As have I.

Shaun: I’m Shaun Cooney, this has been Splunk Perspectives. Thank you very much for watching. See you next time.

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