What watching pit crews can teach us about our own employee training and motivation

Char Coburn is the director of Human Resources for the Bonanza Casino in Reno, Nev. She has been at the casino for the past 20 years, and is a human resources generalist who wears many hats. She can be reached at char@bonanzacasino.com.

I spent four days in the wonderful climate of Phoenix, Ariz. at the beginning of November. You see, I’m a NASCAR fan and hadn’t been to a race in a couple of years, so off my husband and I went. We saw the truck races on Friday, the Busch series cars on Saturday (my favorite driver, Carl Edwards, won the 2007 Cup Championship, which was excellent) and the Nextel Cup race on Sunday. Our seats were across from Pit Road, and since Edwards won the pole position, his pit was directly in front of us. We also purchased pit passes so we could see the cars, and hopefully some of the drivers, up close and personal.

How those men strap themselves into those vehicles, with the “controlled explosion engines” in front of them, and go around an enclosed area at around 200 miles per hour is astonishing to me. Of course, knowing that they each have a pit crew that is meticulous in their efforts to make the car the fastest and safest car on the track undoubtedly helps to give the drivers the confidence to perform that feat week after week.

A well-oiled machine

And, week after week, the pit crews are challenged. As we watched, Carl Edwards came in for a stop to get tires and fuel under a caution flag (another driver had crashed, causing the others to slow down and stop racing while the track was cleared). The faster the crew is at performing the needed functions, the better it is for the driver. The cars that get back on the track in the shortest amount of time are out in front of the pack and have a better chance of winning the race.

Edwards’ car, number 99, got four new tires, had its fuel tank filled and a layer of film removed from the windshield in under around 14 seconds, putting him back on the track in first place. He didn’t win the race, as the engine failed after leading 87 laps, but it wasn’t because of what the pit crew did.

The crew worked together like the parts in a finely crafted watch. Each member of the crew knew exactly what needed to be done, when, and performed the tasks smoothly. For instance, the person responsible for removing the right-front wheel was ready and waiting when the car stopped, the pneumatic tool in his hands. He knelt and removed the wheel, rolling it toward the pit wall where another crew member was awaiting it, at the same time as the new wheel was placed on the car by the team member responsible for that. Each person on the team knew just what they had to do and did it, working together toward a common goal-getting the 99 car serviced and back on the track as quickly as possible.

Comparable employee efforts

What does this all have to do with human resources? I couldn’t help but feel envious about the teamwork I saw, not just in Edwards’ pit, but all along Pit Road-Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex, Jr., Jimmie Johnson-all of them got similar performances from their crews. The hours that they put in, practicing, getting to know each other and how to perform their jobs have obviously led to good results. How can we get that kind of performance from our teams in the departments that serve our guests?

I made the analogy in my mind of the team it takes in a restaurant to service a guest. The bus person needs to remove everything from a dirty table, clean it and reset it. The hostess needs to graciously seat a guest at the clean table. The bus person then needs to make contact and take drink orders, followed by the server taking food orders. They have to smoothly hand-off service responsibility to each other, just like the pit crew.

I suppose it might promote better teamwork if the restaurant team were working toward a prize. In actuality they are working toward a prize-keeping that guest happy and coming back to our restaurant. They are working against teams at the other properties. Maybe that concept should be conveyed during new-hire orientation.

Pit crews train daily. They repeat the same moves over and over again. Perhaps a similar training regimen would be the ticket? Maybe it would be fun and promote the teamwork philosophy to form actual teams and have them practice just like the NASCAR crews. I should contact the officials if I begin using an acronym like: Never A Sad Customer At our Restaurant races. Okay, I’m reaching here. It might just be easier to go ahead and purchase one of the team-building exercises I find offered by training companies from time-to-time.

I really enjoyed the races and watching the teams work together. Jimmie Johnson pretty much clinched the Nextel Cup by winning over his teammate Jeff Gordon. They work for the same car owner. Gordon congratulated Jimmie and set an example for all of us in how he accepted his loss-to another member of his team. You know, I think I should go to a lot more races so I can observe how the system works. In fact, I think I should do it for the betterment of my property and team, on company time. Now, if I can just convince the general manager.