Thursday, July 10, 2014

Leadership Reflections on Race Across America

I returned recently from Annapolis MD where I had been crewing in the Race Across America (or RAAM for short). This blog contains some reflections on my experience in 2014, experiences all about leadership and participation. I crewed in 2007 for a 2 man relay team and 2014 was for a solo racer

About RAAM
RAAM is a bicycle race that goes all across America, starting from Oceanside CA (north of San Diego) to Annapolis MD on Chesapeake Bay. The race covers 3,050 miles and climbs over 100,000 feet (4,880 kms and 33,000 metres) and is unlike the bicycle races we all know about, like the Tour de France or the Vuelta Espana. The difference lies in that the race is not run as a staged race and the racers are not permitted to ride in packs (i.e., in a peloton). The basic idea is the racers all start on the West Coast with one minute intervals and head to the East Coast following a fixed route as best they can. They choose when to rest and when to sleep and when to ride – 24 hours a day. They are not permitted to draft behind another rider or a vehicle. Basically what happens when one racer approaches another – ride up behind; make the commitment to pass; have a chat on the way past and move on. The overtaken rider then can choose whether to challenge the pass or drop back. The race is split into Solo Racers and Team Racers – with Solo Racers starting on Tuesday and team racers starting the following  Saturday. The teams are run as a relay race with changeover happening day and night whereas the solo racer is alone.

Why do it?
In 2007, I was asked by a friend, Glenn Druery, who was racing in the two man Team Velokraft to crew. Glenn and I were involved in endurance cycling events and he felt that I could add to the team drawing on my endurance cycling and management leadership background. And so it proved. The crew experience in 2007 was not great driven by some mismatched expectations by some crew members and by a lack of good team briefings by the crew chief. Crew members did not know what they had to do and struggled to work it out for themselves in the absence of solid leadership from the crew chief. So bad was it that the racers sacked the crew chief after 5 days and appointed me as crew chief. When I announced to the world that I would be crewing in 2014 for Chris Hopkinson, I received a message of warning from a crew member from his 2013 crew. We chatted and it was clear that the problems were very similar to what I had experienced in 2007. The crew members had different expectations; they had not been properly briefed about what they had to do and leadership to plug the gaps was not there. Forewarned is forearmed – I chose to take up the challenge without raising the specific concerns with the racer and his crew chief. Why? I am wary of exaggeration and prefer to see for myself.

What happened?
I was somewhat relieved to receive a document before I set out to Oceanside which outlined some of the things that we would need to deal with – sleeping; driving; looking after the racer; mechanical checks to be made. Important things like where to stay in Oceanside, what gear to bring, what roles were expected were missing. That is not a problem as I had provided enough time before the start to get the requisite level of briefing from the crew chief – just set up a meeting and be told what to do. The rest of the crew were staying in a house together away from the start in Oceanside (I had chosen to be near the start to get into the atmosphere and to cut travel times). Well there were a number of meetings set up and no briefing. I was due to meet the crew chief at the first crew briefing meeting – well the crew chief did not appear. So I attended the crew briefing meeting - which followed the same format as the 2007 meetings. With 30 minutes to go before the race began it was clear to me that many of the crew had not been briefed about what was expected of them. We would work it out somehow.

Differences from 2007
The 2014 edition of RAAM was going to be a little easier than my experience in 2007 for a number of reasons.
  • Four of the crew including the crew chief had prior RAAM experience (in 2007 we had none)
  • The crew chief decided that she would always be in the follow vehicle and would be continually available to look to the racer’s nutrition, medical and motivational needs. In 2007, this task was shared across more than one team member. This sharing brought in a set of communication challenges and in due course the racers got fed up – they were not eating enough and could not perform.
  • The team would only operate two vehicles, one to follow the racer and one to provide support services and in which the resting crew would sleep. In 2007, we operated 3 vehicles: One to follow the racing racer; one to leapfrog the follow vehicle and to carry the resting racer; one as a sleeping vehicle to accommodate the resting crew and the resting racer when he was on sleep shift at night – also to store provisions and provide cooking facilities. This third vehicle was a major source of complexity though it played a crucial role for feeding the racers (and crew) and for giving racers chance to shower and sleep stretched out in a bed
  • The support vehicle would not be used as a follow vehicle. In 2007 the leapfrog vehicle could also be used as a follow vehicle to cover times when the follow vehicle needed to stop to refuel or to change over shifts. In 2007, there would always be a follow vehicle following the racer
  • When the solo racer stops to sleep the whole team can stop. The teams never stop though we did have one break when our 2nd racer withdrew and the surviving racer needed a rest before finishing solo.

What was 2014 like?
I do not want to let this blog turn into a whinge fest – all I will do is re-post a few tweets and anecdotes about leadership that I sent out during the race:
  • “Do you know what we have to do?” “Not yet”. “Good timing with 30 minutes to the start”
  • First cooked meal since Monday going down a treat in Cortez CO. (June 13 and race started June 10)
  • Dawn at Alamosa CO. It is cold and time to get on the road (June 14 after sleeping out at 3C - 38F)
  • How do you expect us to stay awake if there is no cash for coffee and drinks for the crew?
  • Greensburg KS - had a shower - after nearly 5 days without one it had to happen – June 16
  • Great leaders are not threatened by strong team members. They leverage their ability to better results. @RAAMRaces is showing that in spades
  • Leadership lessons from @RAAMRaces. Criticize independent thinking from the team leads to the end of all thinking
  • Leadership lessons from @RAAMRaces Treat people like they are stupid they will choose to act stupid
  • Leadership lessons from @RAAMRaces Leaders shout team members down. Team members go into defensive silent mode"
Team Hoppo in Annapolis, MD
RAAM is a crucible in which decision making gets tested to the extremes.  It is a classic multivariate problem with independent moving parts which need to be scripted to a unifying script. As a management consultant, I created the business concept of Decision Engineering, where an organisation is welded together by a series of decision points. In one of my seminal projects on Operational Improvements in British Airways, I invented the concept of a Planning Envelope. Decisions within a planning envelope could be made 100% by the deciding unit (e.g., cabin crew planning) without reference to any other unit. As soon as a decision took the scope of impact outside the planning envelope, notifications are needed to warn other affected units what is happening (e.g., a late crew will impact the chances of on-time push back of the aircraft which will affect downstream gate availability for an incoming aircraft).

One might well ask how does this apply to a team crewing a RAAM racer. To my mind, a successful team has clarity on a bunch of things. I learned a lot of this in 2007 on the side of the road from Lee Fuzzy Mitchell III who was crew chief of the team we were racing against. Lee was the nicest man alive and there is nothing about crewing he did not know. This is what has to be done right 

1.  Criteria to be optimised
This is not hard although there are quite a few to be taken on board. It is however easy to get the focus wrong.
a.  Performance of the racer on the bike  – nutrition; hydration; comfort; temperature management; cleanliness; motivation; rest; sleep [not taking into account issues like equipment choice which are pre-decided]
b.  Time of the racer off the bike - time to recover; meaningful rest and time to prepare to start again
c.  Performance of the crew measured though quality of decisions and ability to stay awake and to keep the racer performing to his best ability – nutrition; hydration; cleanliness; rest; sleep; motivation and expectations management
d.  Safety – racer while riding; racer while handing off on the road; racer while handing off from a vehicle; crew while hanging out the vehicle; crew standing alongside the road; vehicle while following the racer; all other road users
We had a mostly safe race. The racer fell only once = once too many. I do recall the crew chief worrying about the safety of the crew during a violent storm in Kansas, while insisting the crew strap a tarpaulin over the external speaker system – winds blowing in excess of 60 miles per hour.
e.  Costs – supplies; fuel; food for racer and crew; incidentals

All through the race we seemed to have only two criteria in mind.
  •      Keeping the racer on the bike and
  •      Minimising support vehicle movements so resting crew could sleep

What was really missing included keep the racer properly refuelled so he could perform at top level day in and day out. The crew sleeping model was totally undermined by excessively long shifts – we certainly had several crew shits in excess of 12 hours and often these were back to back with excessive vehicle movements in between (go ahead a time station and then come back again to do a crew change)

2.  Roles and responsibilities (and planning envelopes)
This is both easy and hard. Individual roles needed during RAAM are not difficult to perform and are easily reinforced with checklists. Because the race runs 24 hours a day, roles have to be rotated between crew members. This stresses communication at handover time and between roles, checklists of things to be done and clear outlines of responsibilities, decision criteria to be applied and timelines for actions. Of course as tiredness creeps in, decision quality drops which means that things like checklists become more important. And of course the whole system becomes fully stretched if something goes seriously wrong.

In a good crew, the crew chief has only to deal with problems and changes. All other tasks should happen automatically within a planning envelope. For example, daily provisioning should be from a standard list supplemented with special needs arising from the prior day activity. Daily laundry should be planned in based on most convenient laundry facility (given time constraints and opening hours); crew eating and showering can be planned in. Mechanical checks of the bike should occur automatically at every stop and every time the racer sleeps (which means the mechanic has to be on shift when that is planned to happen); 6 hour shifts should be between 6 and 8 hours long – not 14 hours long as happened many times.

And of course every role should have a backup person ready to cover it in the event there is a problem (who not only knows what to do but where to find everything needed to execute that role)

3.  Lists and Checklists
Lee Mitchell was a list and labelling maniac. Every item of equipment was placed in a labelled box or container. Every time an item was used it was placed back in the same place. Every time an item was exhausted, the replenishment list was updated. Every input and output to the racer was recorded – so that it was totally clear if the racer was short of nutrition or hydration. 

RAAM 2014 did not have a single list that I saw. I certainly did not know where stuff was kept. The crew who had packed the vehicles did know - so I was covered there. Had the crew chief been taken ill, we might have been stuck.

From Fuzzy’s guide:
♦  Stop and Eat sheets: record all intake of calories, sodium, and fluid as well as peeing. For stops record time off bike, race location and reason for stop. Remind each other to make entries on Stop and Eat sheets.
♦   If your rider hasn’t peed twice, drunk 4-5 water bottles, and eaten lots of calories and salt by 12 noon, plan on a DNF!

4. Communication (and Trust)
Communication is the heart of any group initiative. Team members perform better if they know what they have to do. They perform better if they know what is changing that will affect their ability to perform their roles. 

From the outset, we did not know what we had to do and what was expected of us. And when we did apply independent thought and did something that was at odds with the way the crew chief saw things, we found out. Result was a crew that became unwilling to do anything or chose to do whatever they wanted to do.

In a rolling 24 hour event like RAAM, handover communication is essential. Knowing what has happened and what is left undone is central to ensuring a repeatable performance and overcoming obstacles. We had a weakness here but were protected because the crew chief chose to stay awake so much and to stay in the follow vehicle. We did pay by the compromised quality of decisions as tiredness grew – especially in some very long shifts we all did. Luckily we did not face any serious catastrophes as this would have been a test the team would have failed.

5. Adjusting to solve problems 
    This is the real test and one we never did not have to deal with. The process is not difficult. We would have failed as item a. below was never clear.
a.       Reaffirm the decision criteria one is trying to work to
b.      Layout the options for solution
c.       Evalaute the options against the criteria
d.      Make a choice and live by it

What was 2014 like
The final outcome is our racer, Chris Hopkinson, completed RAAM in 10 days 17 hours and 55 minutes.  He won the Jure Robic award for the fastest male solo racer average speed into the Hanover PA time station at 14.55 miles per hour. He completed his race around 27 hours faster than his 2013 attempt - simply fantastic

The real test of RAAM success is how the crew felt about it and would they sign up again and could the racer have gone any faster or finished any sooner. We ended RAAM with a great crew who would happily crew together again. All of the crew would crew for the racer again – he was the consummate gentleman with a fine sense of humour. The crew would also crew for other crew members if they chose to race. 

There is no doubt in my mind the racer could have improved on his race performance.  We were also a lucky crew as the problems we had were not major – we never will know how much time we could have lost if something really bad had gone wrong.
One can only guess how much better our racer could have done if a few things were done differently.  
  • Better preparation in equipment. there is always a way to get another 100 grams off a bike and a more streamlined way to organise things in a vehicle
  • Better management of hydration and nutrition based on full and proper measurement of inputs matched to measured outputs. Racer was burning around 12,000 calories a day and was probably replacing up to 8 to 10,000 a day especially in the first 3 days
  •  Better tools for racer communication. Every time the follow vehicle came up alongside the racer to discuss things, the racer slowed down. (e.g., two way radio or even more full use of microphone/speaker system)
  • Tighter management of rest breaks – every time the racer took a break the 5 minute break became a 10 to 15 minute break (save 8 minutes each break times 4 to 5 breaks a day - 40 minutes a day)
  • Tighter management of sleep breaks – faster to get down to rest; limit rests to agreed time periods; faster to get back on the road would have saved at least 1 hour per sleep  break (times 9 sleep breaks is 10 hours saved). This is the hardest part of RAAM as the racer has to sleep to stay safe when on the bike.
  • More sleep for the crew chief would have produced better decisions (lower costs and higher racer performance) and better team morale

What did I get out of RAAM?
In RAAM 2007, I crewed the night shift which meant I saw very little of the route across America in daylight. This time around with 6 hours shifts (in theory) work rotated through daylight and nighttime hours. So I got to see a lot more of the USA by daylight. Highlights were crossing the Rockies in daylight; enjoying a spectacular Kansas lightning show during dusk time; camping along the side of the road under a full moon (in 2007 we were always on the move). 

The crew did bond into a great team and as a testimonial my crew partner wrote
“We made a great team. It was a pleasure to work with you. You would make a great crew chief for someone. If ever interested in doing so in the future, let me know and I will recommend you if one of the many racers I know is looking for one. You do know your stuff. I will never forget the memories we share of this past RAAM.”

Team Hoppo meets Pippa Middleton
Pippa Middleton on the road

And I did get to support a British cyclist who has written his name into the RAAM history books as a British cyclist. And as a Brit that makes me a proud man.

Perhaps a little ignominy to end it all. We had the pleasure of riding alongside one of the 8 man teams (Michael Matthews Foundation) in the latter part of the race. A team member was Pippa Middleton, sister to the Duchess of Cambridge. We stopped for a chat and a photo session and Chris and Pippa rode side by side for some time while yours truly was navigating the follow vehicle. So distracted were we all that the navigator sent the pair down a wrong turn and they headed off down the freeway off the route. Well if one wants to get lost on a bike ride, getting lost with Pippa Middleton is the way to do it. Sad to report this was the only navigating mistake affecting the racer and it cost valuable time.