Make a Pit Stop

Use your company’s downtime to make long-overdue improvements

by Kirk J. Gould and Chad Vincent

With each passing day, it seems as though the U.S. economy gets a little worse. The stock market, unemployment rates and layoffs all paint a grim picture of the current state of the nation. While everyone is looking for an end to the economic crisis, those of us in the quality profession are looking for ways to make the case for quality and explore how we can help businesses through these difficult times.

Earlier this year, we were talking about the economic turbulence and discussing how lean can be used to help companies. The conversion then shifted to auto racing and how the pit stop can serve as an example for lean’s single-minute exchange of dies method.

As NASCAR fans and typical engineers, we dove into a technical discussion of the pit stop. We realized the pit stop is a powerful metaphor for today’s economic state. Our organizations’ leaders should change the way they think during an economic crisis not only to survive, but also to come out ahead of the competition.

Coming to a stop

There are two reasons for pit stops in auto racing. The first is to fix something that has broken on the car. The second is to make improvements to the car to make it run faster and handle better.

During a race, there are only two times the pit crew is allowed to work on the car. The first is during a green flag, when the race is at full speed. This is not, however, the best time to bring the car into the pits at speeds that are only 25% that of the other cars on the track.

The second time is during a caution, or yellow flag, in which the speed of the cars on the track is almost the same as those on pit road. Drivers are not allowed to pass and improve their positions, and the only way to lose positions on pit road is coming to the pits while other cars stay on the track.

Why do NASCAR drivers like to pit under the yellow flag? This is the best time because all cars have slowed down. Using time and effort to improve operating capability during caution periods provides a definite competitive advantage. There is much less risk in taking a pit stop during a yellow flag than while everyone is running at peak speeds.

Under a yellow flag

We realized we are working in an economy under a yellow flag. The questions that stemmed from this were, "What do we intend to do as a company during this time of caution?" and, "Is this a good time for us to pull into the pits and get some fuel, replace tires and make improvements?" The answer to both questions was yes.

In fact, there is no better time than the present to use employees—not lay them off—by putting them to work to make improvements that have been put off because organizations have been running too fast to make progress.

Employees have more free time if processes are not running at full capacity. The competition has slowed down, and now is the time to make improvements. Will we treat these economic times as a yellow flag, or will we wait until the economy is back to moving at a high rate of speed?

If we make improvements now, we will be better off than the competition when we go back to green-flag speeds.


Single-minute exchange of dies (SMED) is a series of techniques pioneered by Shigeo Shingo for changeovers of production machinery in less than 10 minutes. The long-term objective is always zero setup, in which changeovers are instantaneous and do not interfere in any way with continuous flow. Setup in a single minute is not required but is used as a reference.

Kirk J. Gould is a senior performance consultant for Arizona Public Service in Phoenix. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

Chad Vincent is principal engineer at Baxter Healthcare Corp. in Mountain Home, AR. He earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering management, specializing in quality engineering, from the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, MO. Vincent is a certified quality engineer, manager, reliability engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt. He is a senior member of ASQ.

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