What can a major company learn from the sports world? I am not thinking here about inspirational speeches from a coach or anything like that. Rather, can people with a background in sports competition actually offer ways of improving business processes?
It turns out the answer to that question is yes as the Financial Times reports in discussing McClaren Applied Technologies relationship with GlaxoSmithKline (McLaren speeds up GSK with racetrack expertise, Dec 10). That’s McClaren as in Formula 1 racing and they have turned their expertise in organizing pit crews and monitoring racing cars into a side consulting business. In the case of GSK, they have produced some interesting results.
Perhaps the clearest dividend of the partnership so far has come not in drug development but in GSK’s consumer healthcare business. McLaren was asked to scrutinise a toothpaste manufacturing facility in Maidenhead and work out how to boost efficiency.
“We noticed that they were making lots of small batches of different products with a lot of down time in between,” says Mr McGrath. “They said: ‘If you can change four tyres on a racing car in two seconds why does it take us two hours to do a changeover?’”
Within a year, lost time had been cut by 60 per cent, using principles similar to those that govern the pit-stops for Mr Button’s racing car. “It’s about everyone knowing their job and doing it well,” says Mr McGrath. “Afterwards, we analyse every detail — what went well, what didn’t and how we can improve.”
Beyond factory floor improvements, they are now turning to other GSK processes — particularly product development. Here the emphasis isn’t so much optimizing workflow, but gathering and analyzing data during drug trials.
Telemetric sensors of the kind used to measure performance in F1 cars have been adapted to measure the mobility of stroke survivors taking part in a GSK drug trial. This allows researchers to monitor everything from the length of a footstep to the person’s posture — helping assess the impact of the experimental medicine. GSK is planning to use the technology again in a forthcoming trial involving motor neurone disease.
Stephen Mayhew, director of R and D strategy at GSK, says telemetry offers big improvements over the traditional measure of mobility used in clinical trials — how far a patient can comfortably walk in six minutes. “That is incredibly subjective,” he says. “If you are only seeing a patient every three months you are not getting a very accurate picture.”
This application seems much more interesting than reducing set up times. There are any number of consultants working in lean methods that can help a firm reduce set up times. Their pitch may not be as sexy as saying “This is what we did at Monaco…” but they will get to the same place. The telemetric applications, however, seem fairly unique. It shows how reducing the cost of inspection can make a difference. Checking in on patients every few months could never be argued to be clinically optimal. It is clearly a trade off between the cost (either monetary or in terms of patient time) in bringing a patient in for testing and the benefit of gathering data. If this technology is successful, the cost of monitoring drops dramatically and better data makes it easier to detect changes.