Strategy and the art of motorcycle maintenance
Here is a brief excerpt from an article written by Chris Bradley for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other resources, learn more about the firm, obtain subscription information, and register to receive email alerts, please click here.
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What I learned about empirical analysis, dominant hypotheses, and the value of a clean workshop while crossing Australia on my bike
Last year, when I turned 40, I did something you might think is a little predictable: I bought a motorcycle with the intent of taking it off road to cross the entire Australian land mass from west to east. That first attempt was a big fail (that is not the subject of this article!), but I got back on the steel horse and this month returned from an epic adventure with some close mates that took me from Darwin to Sydney, avoiding tarmac almost the entire way. A total of 6,030 kilometers in 13 days.
In college, one of my favorite books was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In Robert Pirsig’s famous 1974 tome, the autobiographical main character Phaedrus uses motorcycle maintenance as a way to riff on the meaning of quality. Having committed to this crazy notion of adventure motorbiking, in a country as big and barren as Australia, I had to learn enough about my motorcycle to perform basic maintenance and trouble-shooting, given the inevitability of things breaking down.
As I struggled to climb the steep learning curve (which often involved undoing my own unwitting mistakes), I saw many parallels with my work in strategy consulting. I’ve gathered these reflections here—lessons from the world of motorcycle maintenance that should resonate with strategists. These have all been acquired the old-fashioned hard way.
- Slow down and make sure you are solving the right problem.When your bike breaks in the middle of nowhere, you can get a little panicky. This leads to impulsively locking onto the first imaginable solution as you try to be quick and efficient. Problem is, going fast is for sure the slowest way to fix a motorcycle. Even worse is trying to fix it with the wrong part or tool because you “don’t have time” to get the right one. Rushing to change a clutch (the first time I had seen a clutch, let alone changed one), I completely busted the gasket and this slowed me down by a week.
- Work back from the source of the problem.Suppose your tire is down and won’t pump up (off-road bikers constantly adjust tire pressure to deal with different terrain, especially the dreaded sand). Many people jump to the end of the problem (“I need to switch tubes”—a hard job involving taking the tire off and putting it on again by hand). This is wrong. You have to start at the beginning, which in this case is the air compressor, then move to the valve, then the tube. As I said, I learned this the hard way; imagine how we felt standing by that dirt road after 45 minutes of hard effort changing a tube that turned out to be fine! It was, of course, the pump that was faulty. (Simple check: try your friend’s pump.)
- Be empirical.A tattoo-covered bush mechanic with about four teeth, a long beard, and no shirt was the least likely candidate to teach me about the value of empiricism. We met him on a remote road in Arnhem land, an Aboriginal territory in the very north of Australia. I had just done something dumb: I tried to cross a creek where I couldn’t see the bottom. Next thing I know, I’m up to my thighs in water and the bike conks out. After that, it wouldn’t start. The mechanic happened to be passing by, saw us across the creek, had a bit of a laugh, and then, as they do in these parts, proceeded to help us.We had many theories about what the problem was, but this guy (as per lesson #2) focused on testing for the source of the trouble. First, was air getting through the engine, or did water get into the casing? Test: see if you get a good chug-chug of air out of the exhaust when you crank the starter motor. Pass. Second, was electricity getting to the spark plug? Test: pull out the spark plug cable, plug in a fresh spark plug and crank the engine. It did not spark. Solution: wait an hour for it to dry out, then try again. Worked perfectly!The point is, this bush mechanic didn’t waste time on theorizing and instead jumped in to gather data. But not in a random way: he had an ordered set of hypotheses and designed the simplest possible experiments to systematically eliminate them.
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Here is a direct link to the complete article.
Chris Bradley is a partner in the Sydney office.