A long time ago I had the opportunity to spend a season following the Grand Prix circuit in Europe. My role was that of cameraman, but more often I was a utility person, doing whatever needed doing, especially when it came to lifting, hauling or moving things. As unglamorous as my job was, I did have the opportunity to observe race teams up close.

Then, as now, Ferrari was king of the hill. I marvelled at the raw power of the highly tuned machines and the synchronised actions of the pit crews. I never thought that what I was observing would become a model, a generation later, for how surgeons at a leading NHS trust manage patient care.

One of the challenging tasks that surgeons face is the patient handover, that is, transferring a patient from theatre to the ward. Research shows that such transfers account for a high percentage of errors, some of which can be detrimental to the health of the patient. Why? According to the Wall Street Journal, handovers require patient history, proper medication and a full assortment of equipment, all of which needs to be managed with exquisite timing and forethought.

For just this reason, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London teamed up with Ferrari racing to discover how its pit crews manage and plan for routine events as well as the unexpected ones that occur during a race. What the doctors learned contributed to their development of a new standard for patient handovers that have resulted in a significant reduction in technical and communications problems, according to the Journal report.

Beyond boundaries
Amazing? In one sense, yes. But what the good doctors did is what savvy business people have simply done for generations – learning from the best, even when the best is not in your own field. Benchmarking is standard practice in most companies; but often such benchmarking focuses on companies in the same or, at the least, similar industries. Manufacturers study manufacturers; healthcare providers study other healthcare providers.

Such studies are useful, but they only end up generating small improvements. To make a leap forward, you need to study something completely different, as the doctors who studied Ferrari did. Before embarking on such a venture, however, it’s good to consider what you hope to gain from such an exploration. Here are some questions to consider.

More than fifty years ago, one man had a hare-brained idea that an amusement park could be a nice clean place where families could come and have a good time. That man was Walt Disney. He set about creating the modern-day theme park that would be based, at least in part, on animated or movie attractions that his company had created. People thought he was crazy; the only models for such entertainment historically were travelling circuses and carnivals. Disney was undeterred. He took as his model the idea of service entertainment in which the park was the stage, customers were guests and the total show was the ‘unique guest experience’. Not only did Disney create a Magic Kingdom, he created a role model for the hospitality industry itself.

For generations of customers, buying a car was one of the single most unpleasant experiences of their lives. Customers felt alternately irritated, hassled and mistrusted every time they walked into a car dealer showroom. Such experiences are not what Japanese luxury car makers wanted to follow when they introduced their upscale models to the UK. So whom did they study for comparison? Not car dealers, but luxury hotels. The Japanese put their dealers through an immersion course in hospitality. Eventually the entire auto industry caught on to the practice, and today customer satisfaction has improved over what it was years ago.

What can you learn?
Once every year, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School puts its MBA candidates through a one-day session at the Marine Corps’ Quantico training centre. There, future corporate leaders experience a bit of the rigour and hardship that marines undergo in preparation for becoming officers. Such an experience not only gets the students out of the classroom, it forces them out of their comfort zone. It gives students an appreciation for making decisions under pressure and when feeling physically uncomfortable. Through this experience they gain insights into situational awareness, that is, what is happening around them and what they must do about it.

Knowing your limits
As valuable as information and insights gained from outside sources can be, it is essential to remain true to your roots. For example, as much as the hospitals can learn from racing teams or lean manufacturers about improving patient care, the lessons in diagnosis, treatment and therapy will come from fellow medical professionals. It is not likely that Ferrari can teach doctors about cardiac surgery techniques, any more than a doctor can teach a Ferrari technician about minimising fuel consumption during a race.

Looking outside your own world has strong benefits in enabling you to do what you do better, but there is another advantage. Looking beyond your own four walls is liberating. By getting outside of your own place, you can observe what others do. It is like being a traveller in a foreign land. Everything looks, feels, tastes and even acts different from what you are accustomed to. Your powers of observation are heightened; you pay attention to the slightest details. And in doing so, you are exposing yourself to new ideas. What’s more, being in new places stimulates the creative juices.

You cannot help but wonder: What if we did that in our place? Sometimes the results would be disastrous, but sometimes magic occurs. And that’s worth all the observation in the world.

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies as well as not-for-profit organisations.

He is a frequent keynote and workshop speaker and author of six books on leadership, the most recent being How Great Leaders Get Great Results.