The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

What do Sir Dave Brailsford former British Cycling performance director, Sir Digby Jones, former CBI Director General and Exponential have in common? They are all associated with performance excellence and committed to the philosophy of ‘marginal gains’.

Although I do not consider myself a fan of detail, I know that it is the small things that make the difference in the long term. Rarely, have I seen many one-off revolutionary-style change programmes or transformation projects deliver the performance impact and ambitious results, and step change as quickly as senior managers expect.

More often than not, the greatest impacts come from making many, smaller, incremental changes implemented over the long term. Whilst each change, revision or adjustment may not appear to be significant in its own right, collectively all of the small changes have an ‘exponential’ impact.

British Cycling under the leadership of Brailsford has dominated world cycling in recent years. Brailsford attributes much of this success to what he calls his marginal gains philosophy which he sums up saying:

“If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”

David Brailsford

Last month, I was watching an episode of BBC’s latest Troubleshooter series with Sir Digby Jones. Whereas Brailsford talks about making many one per cent improvements, Jones talks about removing half seconds of time from processes. As he explained to a puzzled production manager at Icetech Freezers Ltd by removing half a second from the time to perform a step in a manufacturing process, you are adding margin to the bottom-line. He went on to explain that by eliminating 10, 20, 30 or even 100 half seconds from a production run that is carried out tens of thousands of times a year, the true scale of the saving is NOT the half second, but many thousands or even millions of pounds, Euros and dollars.

What does this mean to a manager, a small business or a large corporation? It means working at the detail level in the context of the BIGGER picture. It means analysing the small things and implementing many small improvements resulting in a multitude of marginal gains, which collectively add up to something much greater.

So, whilst most managers look for one or two big improvements, the ‘savvy’ entrepreneur, manager and director instead focuses on looking for lots of small things to change and improve in order to finesse their performance. The true power of this approach lies in the fact that the people working with the detail are the people best placed to identify and them make improvements.

For me, the philosophy of marginal gains goes hand-in-hand with creating and sustaining a culture of employee engagement, excellent customer service and performance excellence. This has always been Exponential’s philosophy for improving management and organisation performance. No single training course, management tool, leadership model or action is likely to yield the BIG return on its own, but a collection of actions and tools can. There is power in small, incremental gains.

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About the Author

John Moore has over 20 years experience of training and developing Managers, Coaches, Consultants and businesses. As Managing Director of Exponential Training, John researches, speaks, blogs and writes about how to improve performance. He also designs and delivers engaging, fun and interactive learning programmes. John is a Fellow Chartered Manager and has worked with managers and organisations in over 20 different countries.

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