This upcoming Monday is a rest day for the riders in the Tour De France, and boy do I need it. No, not because I’ve been logging the same number of miles on my bike in the flatlands of Wisconsin as the pros are on the mountain roads of the Pyrenees. It’s because I’ve been watching hours and hours of coverage on breakaways, attacks, climbs and echelons – and there simply aren’t enough hours in the week to keep up with it all.
I’ll be the first to agree that the majority of people out there aren’t going to be riveted to their seats watching two hundred cyclists ride between four and six hours nearly every day for three weeks. Even I tend to fast forward through the flat stages to get to the sprint finishes. But I have a great admiration for the speed, stamina, distance, and effort at which they pound the pedals. And just turning on the tv and watching the Tour probably wouldn’t have instilled a sense of awe in me either. It really came after I read two of Lance Armstrong’s books, Every Second Counts and It’s Not About the Bike. Within those books Lance gave detailed accounts of the inner workings of the training regimen, the strategic planning, and the teamwork necessary to compete at that level. After understanding more about the intricacies of the sport, you begin to see more in the television coverage than simply a group of grown men out on a long and arduous ride.
This year’s tour is the 100th installment. There are 21 stages over 23 days, and the route covers over 2100 miles. Typically the Tour starts off with a flatter stage with no large mountain climbs, seeming to ease in to the three-week marathon. The flatter stages tend to see a large peloton of riders approaching the finish line, resulting in a sprint to the finish where speeds reach over 40 mph. Stage 1 in 2013 was a flat stage on the island of Corsica designed to end in a sprint. It was a fairly uneventful ride, until the riders were around 15 minutes from the finish line, and chaos ensued as one of the team buses got stuck under the finishing line banner.
The bus was wedged in, with its air conditioning system punctured on top. People seemed to be wandering around trying to figure out a quick fix, but no one had an answer for this unprecedented situation. The only thing that was clear was that if the peloton reached the finish line and the bus was there… well, it just wasn’t going to work! Tour officials were forced to make quick decisions on how to deal with the situation. Their first choice was to change the finish line further up the road, 3 km short of the finish. Probably a better solution than a big crash or canceling the stage, but the teams had spent months preparing for the right sequence of events leading up to the original finish line and didn’t have a plan for how to win at a different location.
You could tell the poor bus driver felt absolutely horrible and helpless in the situation.
In the end, they were able to deflate the tires on the bus, back it out, and open up an exit on the side of the race to get the bus out of the way. Then the race officials re-adjusted the finish line back to the original location. As this adjustment was communicated again through the team radios, a crash ensued in the race involving several of the top sprinters, adding more chaos to the finish. It turned out to be a much more exciting stage than anyone had expected.
So let’s do a little examination of how the bus happened to get stuck under the banner – what were the causes, were standards present and/or followed, and what kind of things can we put in place to prevent a situation like this from ever occurring again. First off you might ask, why was the bus even driving on the course? Well, they tend to parade buses and floats and other vehicles through the finish line before the riders reach the end. And then you might ask, well what about all the other team buses? Was this bus special and tall? Why didn’t they run into it?
From what I can make out of news reports, the banner itself can raise up and down, and it usually up for the parade and down for the finish. The Orica Greenedge bus was behind schedule, and the banner had already been lowered. Then reports say the driver received instructions to continue moving on. A comment from a race official stated he needed to stop and request that it be raised. Clearly, several failures along the way contributed to the unfortunate state of affairs.
So, lean thinkers – do you blame the process or the people in this situation? The easy road would be to say the driver was inexperienced and should have known better and it was his fault. But I’d ask, why was the banner lowered before all the vehicles were through? Why is the banner set lower than the height of the vehicles going through in the first place?
If I were to jump to a solution before truly understanding the cause, several potential countermeasures come to mind. All vehicles that will pass under the banner should be measured prior to the stage and any potential problem heights should be noted and tracked through the finish line. Or, all vehicles over a certain height are not allowed to go through the finish line. You could even come up with a warning measurement system a few hundred yards ahead of the finish line that alerted the drivers and officials to a potential problem based on the current height of the banner. All of these solutions, if implemented and followed, might very well prevent a similar situation from ever occurring again.
But we can do better. All of those countermeasures add some form of complexity to the system. Added steps of measuring vehicles, added technology near the finish line, added people to do all the extra work – each extra simply increases the opportunities for error, especially if it relies on human interaction. Ask the question, what purpose does the banner at the end of the race serve? It is a visual cue for sprinters so they know how close they are getting and when to begin their final attack. It displays the time, presumably for spectators near the finish. It has advertising for major sponsors of the race. And I believe it holds timing system equipment and photo finish cameras on the sides. You could deliver these functions in other ways. Visual cues could be done with a balloon or soft hanging banner. Times for spectators could be displayed on a screen not hanging over the finish line. Timing system equipment and photo finish cameras can still be erected on the side of the course.
Side benefits might include one less large apparatus to erect and take down each day, one less place where mechanical or electrical maintenance is needed, or where other difficulties could occur. Perhaps the resources used on these steps could do other value-added work instead.
Many times we consider how to counteract a problem we encountered by adding steps to stop it from occurring. We should step back once in a while from the solution and ask the question – do we even need this in our process? Is it still relevant, does the customer still need it? Or can we remove the possibility of defects occurring by eliminating a step. Can we make the whole process easier and less prone to defects by subtracting rather than adding?