The Daytona 500 is almost upon us so it seems like a good time to talk about NASCAR. Growing up in New England, I paid no attention to NASCAR. Stock car racing was just what Wide World of Sports showed when ski jumping or motor cycle racing on ice were out of season. It wasn’t until I moved to North Carolina in the mid 90s that I realized that NASCAR was a big BIG deal. Stock car racing is also a big, highly competitive business. It pays close attention to operations, at least on race day. In grad school, I had a professor who pointed to pit crews changing tires to highlight the importance of operations. It’s one thing for the average motorist to fumble with a jack and be slow when changing a tire, he said, but when an organization depends on efficient tires changes to be competitive, they invest to get it right.
The smoothness of a NASCAR team’s efficiency on race day, apparently can hide some less than lean operations back in the garage. That is the point of a recent Wall Street Journal article (At Ford Racing, Quality (Control) Is Job One, Feb 4). It discusses the impact Mary Ann Mauldwin has had as the director of operations for Roush & Yates Racing Engines. Roush & Yates has several teams in the NASCAR circuit and is a Ford shop. Ford may be besting GM in the market right now, but General Motors has dominated NASCAR over the last few decades. Mauldwin had been a consultant specializing in operations management and had been brought in to restructure the business. According to the article, this is a trend in NASCAR:
Ms. Mauldwin is also part of a larger trend in Nascar. For decades, the sport was dominated by mechanics and crew chiefs whose primary qualification was the grease under their fingernails. Today, Nascar teams are increasingly dependent on a bevy of engineers and technicians who never see the race track. Often it’s the reams of data they generate during testing and simulations that are the key to winning.
So part of what she did is basic inventory management. There had previously been poor bookkeeping of what was in stock. She put in a proper inventory tracking system, which combined with improved forecasting built off the bill of materials for an engine allowed for much more efficient kitting of parts. A technician can now get everything needed for a job in 45 minutes instead of four hours.
The most interesting observation to me is how she has imposed standardization on building engines:
She required engine builders to submit an engineering change form if they wanted to alter anything in the building process. … Mr. Yates, the CEO, also started to see improvements in the quality and the consistency of the company’s engines. His five primary engine builders had each put an engine together a little differently. After Ms. Mauldwin standardized the process, “we were turning out nearly identical engines in terms of performance and reliability,” he said.
That’s particularly important when Mr. Yates is building engines for a number of Ford teams and doesn’t want to be seen as favoring one over the other.
I see this as related to my earlier post on standardizing work in health care. Like doctors and nurses, skilled engine builders can be thought of craftsmen who bring detailed knowledge and expertise to challenging problems. That does not mean, however, that a given craftsman on a given day comes up with the best answer or that over time they will settle on the best way of doing work. There is a role for standardization. Until you know what everyone is doing, you can not establish whether any change represents a real improvement. That is true both in an engine shop and in a hospital.