Image credit to www.sport-magazine.co.uk
The Science of Marginal Gains
One of the more amusing stories to come out of the London Olympics was a comment by Isabelle Gautheron, the boss of the French cycling team, that the British “were supposed to be using the same wheels the French team, but they couldn’t be because the British team were going much faster on them.” (Both teams were using wheels supplied by French company Mavic.)
When asked about the British team’s “magic wheels”, David Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director commented that they were “round”. This may sound flippant, but I believe what he meant by this remark was that his technicians had taken obsessive care to make sure that the wheels supplied by Mavic were as perfectly round as they get them using current technology. This goes to Brailsford’s entire approach to running the team, which was to focus on marginal gains. In an interview with the BBC on the final morning of the Olympic track cycling competition Brailsford said:
“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
Team GB broke down every aspect of what they were doing from goal setting, mental attitude, nutrition, gym training, field training, track training, team training, performance on the day, relaxation and even sleep.
They then asked themselves, “What can we do to improve or change and squeeze a 1% improvement out of this activity?”
They were not frightened to venture outside the sport of cycling and look at different activities and professions. Chris Hoy has said that some of the biggest gains they got in this process came from other disciplines.
They got a great tip about sleep from talking to The Royal Ballet. When on tour members of the Royal Ballet were complaining of not sleeping well. They said the beds were comfortable enough but the pillow was keeping them awake. So the Royal Ballet encourages troupe members to travel with their own pillows when away from home, which helps them sleep in their favourite position. This increases quality of their sleep and has resulted in better performances, fewer mistakes and fewer injuries. British Cycling now does the same.
Conversations with surgeons led to greater awareness of hygiene. Members of the cycling team were taught how to wash their hands the way surgeons do to get them really clean. Over the period of a year, that meant fewer colds and other minor ailments resulting in fewer interruptions to training and more consistent performances on race day.
Chris Hoy himself takes this attention to detail to almost obsessive levels. He says that when he is in a rest period between training sessions he will not even walk down to the shops for a paper. His rest periods are for resting and those periods are sacrosanct. (How many business owners do you know who take their laptops on holiday?)
It’s easy to see how we can apply this kind of thinking to business. Just break down every aspect of what you’re doing in the same way that British Cycling does. So you if you are running a warehouse you might look at the layout of your loading bays, how you check incoming deliveries, how they are entered in your stock records, transfer from goods inward to storage etc etc. (Not forgetting to ask yourself whether you’ve got the right warehouse in the first place in the right location for your needs).
Having done the initial analysis, you then sit down with your team and brainstorm ways that you can improve each activity by just 1%. You’ll find that the cumulative effect of these small improvements will be a big step forward in productivity and profitability.
Another approach might be to set yourself a target of increasing customers by 20% over the period of the year. The number of new customers dealing with your business is a function of the number of new leads generated and your conversion rate, so for the sake of argument let’s assume you’re going to aim for a 10% increase in new leads and a 10% increase in conversion rate. That still sounds challenging but an increase 10% per annum is just 2.5% over a quarter. And if you look at what you need to achieve in a single month it’s an increase of just 0.83% in each area.
Where else can you apply this thinking in your business?