UK Ventilator Challenge revisited: what must we learn to address net zero?
Image credit: VCUK
Participants in the response to the sudden need for innovative medical equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic believe it can provide valuable lessons for decarbonisation efforts.
I recently had an inspiring chat over coffee with Dick Elsy CBE, chairman of AB Dynamics, whom I was privileged to support during VCUK, the 2020 UK Ventilator Challenge established in response to the Prime Minister’s urgent call for additional ventilators to cope with Covid. Happening around the same time as this conversation were the COP27 meeting and the Aerospace Technology Institute conference, the latter dominated by discussion of the aviation industry’s response to climate change.
Prompted in part by all three of these things, I revisited the VCUK initiative with others from the team to discuss whether we can apply what we learned to add extra pace to current progress towards achieving net zero carbon emissions.
Five points came through clearly and consistently on why VCUK was such a success.
We had a collective compelling purpose and burning platform. As Martin Bolton, fast track leader - industry at Airbus, explained: “… the goal was clear, unambiguous, important to the people involved (humanitarian), and simple.”
Nothing was allowed to be impossible. Beginning as a suspension of disbelief for some, everyone, even those used to Formula 1 pace, redefined what they believed possible. Linda Moss, HR director at Penlon, describes a “change of mindset; with hard work, determination and a common goal, anything can be achieved.”
We each knew our own limitations and pulled in the right experts. Perhaps aided by lockdown, but led by the needs of each specific task, an ‘A team’ was created, then trusted and empowered to deliver with little by way of hierarchy. As Andrew Brumley, Ford’s director of powertrain & vehicle architecture engineering, recalls, “Being humble enough to go and find the right person or organisation makes the overall outcome better.”
We democratised our data. Paul Crabtree, UK director, Quick Release, highlights “..the basic data quality we had in place…built on good data management and the system, which wasn’t a huge ERP or PLM system, just a clever guy able to articulate in code exactly what was needed at any point in time.”
We identified and removed each constraint uncompromisingly. Using this reliable data, constraints were made transparent and could be addressed, one by one. Piers Thynne, operations director at McLaren Racing, says “[I saw] my team rise to a very different challenge than our norm, collaborate well and never accept any obstacle in our path. I am hugely proud of what they and we achieved.”
The experience changed us. In some ways most powerful was the experience itself, which left us with an elevated belief in what’s possible. Dan Walmsley, CEO of Retrac Group, explains: “Much more is achievable than many people think in the first instance. Getting a collective belief in the art of the possible can be transforming.”
From our conversations, it was clear that everyone has taken elements of the experience forward in their everyday work to good effect, but most felt it had the potential go much further. Three main things appear to be getting in the way: the ability to make goals truly compelling to everyone, the ability to dedicate, trust and empower the right resources, and the challenge of proliferating the ‘nothing is impossible’ mindset without having a shared experience of it.
To address the first of these issues, not every situation will be as urgent and compelling as Covid, but as Gordon Day, managing director of GKN Hybrid Power, puts it, there is “an art in leadership to intelligently frame the cause enabling others to relate, and then to help raise the temperature sufficiently to approach something of a ‘burning platform’.”
The second point requires us to free up the right people to be focused on and dedicated to a single outcome. As soon as we have split focus or we accept compromised choices, we are planning for delays and frustration.
The last point requires the boldest changes. If we want to achieve unprecedented results and foster a ‘nothing is impossible’ mindset, then - almost by definition - we can’t produce a traditional plan and business case. We are setting an unreasonable goal, asking for dedicated resources and for trust that ‘we’ll figure it out’. On the one hand, it sounds out of control, on the other, it proved very effective.
Perhaps when making funding decisions, instead of assessing a business case and detailed step-by-step plan, leaders or sponsors should be assessing the vital ‘ingredients’ and then helping foster the required environment and mindset.
It’s worth remembering that not only did VCUK achieve incredible pace (200x output increase in 14 weeks) but the ventilators were individually quality tested and MHRA approved, and the cost per unit was competitive despite the no-compromise approach. Apart from the work intensity, which may be difficult to sustain, it is in fact a valid ‘everyday’ approach.
Covid was a threat to human life requiring urgent action. As a nation, we agreed to throw whatever was needed to address the issue with vaccines and testing as well as ventilators. Climate change is arguably an even greater threat to human life that also requires urgent action, but its longer-term, less direct nature isn’t forcing unreasonable goal-setting or rapid action in the same way.
Applying what we learned from the VCUK project to achieving net zero will need to be a much more conscious process. We need to decide to set unreasonable goals, uncompromisingly dedicate and empower our best resources and work hard to break constraints and maintain a ‘nothing is impossible’ mindset. The less conscious we are and the longer we take, the more likely is that circumstances will ‘turn up the heat’ for us.
Ian Quest is director of consulting at Quick Release, specialising in de-risking and accelerating engineering programmes, and led the programme and data management for the Penlon consortium of VCUK.
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