The Olympics: a model for industry?

Features editor

The bunting’s down, the Olympic Park is in ‘transition to legacy’ mode, Olympic gold medallists are starting to appear on reality shows, and the England football team scraped a draw last night after a sending-off. Back to Earth, then, after what’s been an unprecedented summer for sport and engineering visibility. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist one more Olympics-themed comment.

We’ve asked about the games’ impact on British attitudes to engineering, but it struck me that there might be some interesting lessons that industry could learn from the Olympics and Paralympics. It’s sufficiently rare to see Britain excelling so clearly on the world stage that it’s worth thinking about how this was done, and might be transferrable. After all, engineering is all about transferring expertise in one arena into another.

Perhaps the most obvious place to look for lessons might be the velodrome. UK cycling’s success has been one of the sports pages’ biggest stories of 2012 and not just at the Olympics; Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France win (not forgetting Chris Froome’s second place and Mark Cavendish’s stage wins) set the scene for the Olympic medal-fest. And it’s not too long ago that British cyclists made no impact in track competitions, and it was difficult enough to even identify one in the professional peloton, let alone imagine one winning the Tour.

It was all done through UK Cycling performance manager Dave Brailsford’s philosophy of marginal gains, and this is surely something industry can learn from. The technique relies on breaking down cycling into its component parts and finding ways to wring out a small gain in every one of them. Improve all of them by just one per cent, Brailsford says, and you’ll see a significant jump in overall performance. These gains can come from something as simple as each rider bringing their own pillows with them to competitions (a trick picked up from ballet dancers) to making sure riders know the absolute best way to wash their hands, reducing the chance of illness and maximising productive training time.

Of course, it wouldn’t have worked without the absolute dedication of the cyclists and all the technical teams of engineers, physios, psychologists and so on; but the idea of identifying small ways of improving and implementing all of them has to be something of value to industry. It also shows that you need buy-in from the whole team — people will co-operate if you convince them that what they’re doing will work. And you also need to be aware that improvement takes a long time — Brailsford came aboard in 1996. No improvement programme is going to show instant results.

The Olympics and Paralympics have also showed the value of collaboration. The formation of teams across disciplines to come up with ideas, research them and put them into practice has won dividends across the board. Simulation systems and motion-capture have helped with training; aerospace designers and materials scientists have developed equipment such as prostheses for Paralympians. Industry needs to look further and wider for inspiration and listen to people that it wouldn’t normally interact with.

The message from the construction of the Olympic Park might be the importance of a hard and fast deadline that cannot be missed; something that the space industry already knows all about, of course.

Managers and politicians alike could learn something from the head coach of British Athletics, Charles van Commenee, who set himself the goal of his team winning eight medals, said he’d resign if they didn’t, and even though they won six (four of them gold) duly kept his promise and resigned. He’d staked his credibility on his promise, he said, and if he didn’t keep it he wouldn’t be able to ask athletes to make the sacrifices they need to perform. That’s an attitude we could do with more of in boardrooms and parliament.

And finally, British engineers can learn an important lesson from all the medal winners. If you’re successful, don’t fade into the background. Giving due credit is a must and engineering — like sport — would be nothing without teamwork, but self-effacement doesn’t do you any favours. Make damn sure that everyone knows about it. That way, some engineers might become as much a household name as David Weir, Jonnie Peacock, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis.

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