Incredibly, between the time that Van Manen joined McLaren in 1993 and when he left in 2015, there were only three race failures because of electronics. Van Manen put’s the team’s success down to four key elements: maintaining quality and consistency; engaging with customers; making suppliers part of the team; and recruiting and training people.
Looking back on what his team achieved, Van Manen says “one of the big things that we found over many years, but certainly with the standard ECUs, was the importance of looking after the customers and looking after the suppliers. That made successful manufacturing.”
On the customer side, a lot of effort went into building relationships with teams that had until recently been competitors. “We had a few hiccups early on because some of these teams we had never worked with before,” shares Van Manen. “They were all competing against each other, and there were relationships between teams which sometimes weren’t great. We had to show them that they were part of the team delivering the standard ECU. Ultimately, it's not just about introducing something which is new in terms of technology. It's changing the way people work. It's changing the way they deal with each other, how they deal with supplies, and all of that had to be managed in a very short time.”
As well as developing relationships outside of the organisation, Van Manen had to develop his team internally; recruiting new members, helping them acquire new skills, and instilling in them the belief that they could succeed. “When you're doing something that is very new and very big, people are excited, but they also get scared sometimes. An important part of managing that is being able to say to them, "Look, we're good enough for this. We're going to deliver. Don't worry about it. It'll be okay." None of us had ever contemplated, or won, a sort of monopoly business like this before and so it was new to all of us. But it was important for the people who were developing and building the system to be able to look around them and say, "Yeah, we can do this."
Using data to improve performance
Outside of supplying the ECUs, when it comes to a Formula 1 car’s performance on the track, data plays an important role and one that has grown over recent years. High-speed telemetry – the automatic measurement and wireless transmission of data from remote sources – is something the McLaren team started using back in 1993. The technology has evolved a lot in the last thirty years and now during a race, each car sends around 2 billion numbers. While that may not seem like a lot of data, Van Manen is quick to point out “it is if you’re making decisions within a second!”
In motorsport, the use of telemetry and combining real-time data with the context around you, can be the difference between winning and losing, he goes on to say. “If you watch a Formula 1 race, and the commentators are talking endlessly about undercuts and overcuts and undercuts some more, and they're talking about pit stops, essentially, what they're saying is, "How do the race engineers decide, based on the data in front of them, when is the right time to change a tyre? When is the right time to bring the car in?" All that is underpinned by data.”
Van Manen believes the importance of data is something that applies to all manufacturers. Underlining this point, he says “it's no longer about planning for the unpredictable and having a plan B. You need to have a plan D and the data to spot challenges, but also the opportunities.” He also encourages his peers in manufacturing to think broadly about talent. “It’s not just about the talent within your own organisation, and how do we upskill or reskill, but also think about the talent of your customers and your supply chain. How do we actually build strong relationships with customers and our supply chain?”
Unsurprisingly for someone who has spent his career working to keep high-performance cars running smoothly, Van Manen has an antipathy to friction. “It's important with any business - not only to deliver what's important to you for your own business, but also recognise and deliver what's important for the customers. And throughout, working with people to remove the inevitable friction that arises, for blockages that appear, sometimes real, sometimes apparent. When you've got a short amount of time with a lot of change, you can't afford to have too much friction.”