Hovercraft racing is not for the faint hearted. The action is fast, the competition fierce and after a season-long series of races all over the country, the overall glory goes to a single person each year.
My ultimate goal was always to win the National Hovercraft Racing Championship and in 2011, I achieved it for the first of three times. But this is no Days of Thunder, all action story of high speed heroics. It’s a story of measured, disciplined improvements to achieve my ultimate goal.
Kaizen is the method of continuous improvement. It’s a Japanese management concept for incremental changes that are small enough to be put into practice immediately. The principle can also work as a way of life philosophy.
We use the principles of Kaizen at Blue Hat to help us continually improve and be the best we can be at doing what we do. Unknowingly at the time, I had personally used these principles to achieve success in my hobby of hovercraft racing and was recently asked to share my personal experience of doing so.
I had been racing for twenty years and had been unable to improve on third place in the championship. Thinking about this problem, I realised that each year I would do the same thing and unsurprisingly, I’d achieve the same result. I realised I needed to change something if I wanted a different result.
I had just finished building my latest ‘craft in the same way I had always done. It performed OK, I was regularly finishing races between 3rd and 5th. But I wanted to win. I had always joined in the usual paddock moaning proclaiming that ‘I don’t have enough money to win’, or ‘I need the latest superlight hull to win’, or ‘everyone else is cheating’, or ‘I don’t have enough time to build a winning ‘craft’. This type of thinking is all too common amongst the also-rans. To win was going to take a change of attitude as well as technical changes to the craft.
On its own the task of winning the championship is a big, daunting, seemingly unachievable task. But I needed to achieve it for myself. So I made a list of potential improvements and then I broke it down into lots of small tasks. Any one improvement wouldn’t make the difference, but the combined improvements might just give me the edge I needed. This was my plan.
I identified where I was weak and decided to concentrate on improving these areas. I was weak on the water sections of each course which I put down to a lack of confidence in the craft handling. I also noted that I was susceptible to reliability problems with the engine and transmission systems.
I started with the hovercraft’s skirt design to improve the handling and stability on the water. I made small adjustments, one at a time, and tested them over the course of the season. Sometimes I would alter the geometry of the skirt by only a few millimetres. I made many small changes and noted the effects of each. Gradually I was gaining the stability in the craft, and therefore the confidence to go faster across the water. Small changes were leading to large gains.
Similarly I worked on the engine reliability. I made small changes to the engine mounting, I spent a bit more time learning about how to keep the engine in tip top condition, I made changes to the transmission systems and mountings. Each of these changes was small in themselves, but each had a positive effect. I was beginning to get somewhere. I was becoming more competitive.
After two years of testing various craft set-ups I set about building a new ‘craft using all the information I had gained. I became very focused on maximizing everything. For example, instead of using a bolt that I happened to have in my stores that might have been a bit longer than it needed to be, I would make sure I used a bolt that was just long enough. This would save a few grams of weight. This sounds ludicrous, but when you save a few grams of weight on each of the fasteners used you end up saving many grams or even kilograms of weight.
The same went for the skirt. I knew the design I wanted to use from my previous tests, but when it is sewn up it leaves excess flaps of material inside the folds. I trimmed off as much of this excess material as possible. A labour intensive job, but one that saved 1.2kg of weight, and less weight equals more acceleration and more speed.
I moved the engine position by 50mm, another tiny change, but it helped the cooling and therefore the reliability. A small tweak for a big gain.
In hovercraft racing acceleration is arguably more important than top speed. To get ahead at the start of the race gives you a great advantage. Keeping the weight of my craft to a minimum was an obvious focus, but the heaviest single weight in the craft was me, the driver. On the lead up to the first race of the new season I went on a strict calorie controlled diet to drop a stone of weight. This was the hardest change I had to make by far, but when you want something badly enough, it’s much easier to dig deep.
I faced another challenge along the way. I became so obsessed with achieving my goal I used to spend all weekend, every weekend working on the hovercraft. To the point that my incredibly supportive wife suggested that it would be nice to spend some quality time together with each other at the weekends. I agreed wholeheartedly. Some things are more important than my sporting goal! So I refocused and adapted the way I worked. I had to become a lot more efficient with my time. I created lists, planned my days in the workshop to ensure I could achieve what I needed to by when I needed to. It’s not rocket science, but it worked. Fact: planning your time makes you more efficient.
So on to the new season. My new hovercraft was fast right out of the box and I scored my first race win. It felt amazing, but at the same time part of me also expected it after all the planning and preparation, all the hard work, and all the small changes I had made on my journey.
I went on to dominate the whole season and win the UK Hovercraft Championship. In fact I also came top the very next season. My efforts had paid off in the best way possible.
The goal that I set myself, the seemingly unachievable goal of winning the UK Hovercraft Championship, had been hit. I’d hit it but also exceeded my own expectations of how well I could perform. You could say I’d smashed the goal out of the park.
Looking back on the journey I’d taken to get there, I had actually done it in an incredibly simple un-daunting way. None of the individual changes I made were hard or overly complicated. They were each small by themselves, but they added up. The simple, continuous improvements I made had led me to achieve my ultimate goal. The funny thing about all this is that the moaners in the paddock were now accusing me of cheating!
The next time you take your team for an offsite meeting, take some time to reflect on past performance and ask your colleagues what small, easy to adopt changes to daily business tasks would lead to improvements in performance. Make a priority list and work though the list as quickly as you can. Involving your team in the process will maximize engagement in individuals and increase the chances of success. Ask the team at Blue Hat Teambuilding if you’d like to understand how you might go about doing this.
Nick Drew is the Head of Product Design at award winning team building company Blue Hat. Nick has been instrumental in the creation of many never seen before team building concepts that have helped Blue Hat be officially recognized over 40 times by the leading industry awards. He won the National Hovercraft Racing Championship in 2011, 2012 and 2018.