The Weekly Reflektion Week 42 / 2019

This week’s Reflektion is inspired by the 1969 ‘24 hours of Le Mans’ motor race. Thanks again to Ole Martin Dahle for bringing this to our attention.

Jacky Ickx walking slowly across the track to his car

It’s 1969, and 400,000 people are watching the start of the 37th ’24 hour of Le Mans’ race. Part of the attraction of the race was the legendary start where the drivers stood ‘on their marks’ on the opposite side of the track to their cars. The starting signal goes, and all the drivers rush across the track to climb into the cars, start the engine and begin the race. All except one.

A Belgian driver named Jacky Ickx walked slowly across the track to his car. In contrast to several other drivers, he took his time to put on his helmet, climb in and close the door, and fasten his seat belt. He was willing to sacrifice valuable seconds to ensure he was as safe as he could be from the beginning. He started the race, clearly in last place.

A year earlier in the 36th Le Mans race, another Belgian driver, Willy Mairesse, in his rush to get a good start, did not shut his door properly. At the end of the first straight, the door flew open at over 150 miles/hr (241 km/hr), and trying to close it, Mairesse lost control of the car, and crashed into trees. Mairesse was in a coma for 2 weeks following the crash, and his injuries ended his racing career. The following year, he committed suicide, attributed to this crash.

Prior to the 1969 Le Mans race, Jacky Ickx had tried to influence both the drivers and the organisers to do away with the rush start, and start the race already sitting, belted up in the cars. This was an effort to avoid the accidents on previous races, notably Mairesse’s accident. He was not heard. His slow walk to the car was his protest against a start he considered unnecessarily dangerous. On the first lap of this race, a British driver named John Woolfe had an accident and was killed. He had not taken the time to put on hiss safety belt.

Jacky Ickx and his teammate the British driver, Jackie Oliver, worked their way up through the field, and eventually won the race, showing that the seconds saved at the start were not critical to the overall performance. The race organisers changed the starting practice for the 1970 race. 

There were two factors that combined to influence the race organisers to change the starting procedure. The first was the visible demonstration from Jacky Ickx and the second was the outrage from yet another fatality at the start of the race. The visible demonstration and the fact that Ickx and his teammate won the race arguably enhanced the outrage.

One of the main differences management can make in any company is to express their dissatisfaction over unsafe practices and then make a visible demonstration that they mean what they say. They look for indications of unsafe practices through incidents and accidents. They talk to people and ask them about unsafe practices. They encourage the people in their organisation, in particular the supervisors, to seek out unsafe practices. The visible demonstration is the management that take personal responsibility to change the practices. Yes, this time it’s personal!

How do you influence the culture of your organisation? Do you make a visible demonstration to stamp out unsafe practices and poor safety behaviour? Do you make it personal?

Reflekt AS