The Business Benefits of Marginal Gains

My Managing Director and I were discussing the subject of business performance and commercial efficiency the other day when he mentioned the recent story of the British Olympic Cycling team boss, Dave Brailsford.

Interviewed on BBC Breakfast Time on the last day of the Olympic track cycling, back in August, Brailsford spoke about the successes of Cycling Team GB’s and their incredible medal haul.

The “secret” behind the British dominance was not the French-built Mavic rims nor the fact that they were, as Brailsford joked to the press, “especially round” wheels. No, the “magic” behind winning seven gold medals in cycling was down to… marginal gains.

Speaking on the BBC morning TV show, 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.”

What Brailsford seems to be saying is that, once every aspect is deconstructed and improved by just 1%, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Now apply that philosophy to business; Take each aspect of your business processes and try to improve each one by just 1%. One percentage point on its own in just one area may seem minimal, but if you add all those tiny gains together then, well, they all add up.

It’s Not Just About the Bikes…

Even the bikes themselves, apparently, were only a 1% part of the whole mix of the cycling team’s success. Everything else the cycling team did was the 99% – from seemingly indirect details, such as taking with their favourite pillows everywhere they went so that they got the same decent night’s sleep, cleaning their hands more effectively so that didn’t get ill so often, and wearing “hot pants” to heat their muscles before races; each of these aspects was approached with a view to achieving marginal gains.

Brailsford continued:

“They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

Sir Chris Hoy, who won his fifth and sixth Olympic golds at this year’s events, praised the training regime, the coaches and the science, but singled out the question the track athletes asked themselves:

“How can we get better?”

And that, in a nutshell, is the question that every British small business should ask itself… How can we get better?

Marginal Business Benefits

There’s a saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” and in my own experience as a designer, editor and web professional over the last 12 years, I think it’s true. With the array of software and tools I have in front of me each day I have so often found myself thinking: “There has to be a better way than this”

One example is that I tend to use the same websites every single day, such as Google Webmaster Tools, Google Analytics & Google Reader plus a web-based email client, Content Management System (CMS) and a number of other important sites. By bookmarking and arranging this particular set of URLs I can open my web browser each morning, select the folder and “open all in tabs” – Et voila, all the websites I use for my daily business are there in front of me within seconds.

Or how about one of the files that I edit every day – It has over 17,000 lines of code and nearly 3,000 of those need to be changed on a daily basis. The file, an XML doc that natively opens up in my HTML authoring tool, Dreamweaver, takes quite a few minutes to run a “global find & replace” and, in that time, I am unable to use the software for anything else. (So I cannot edit the next piece of business advice)

Instead, I use Notepad++ which allows me to open the same XML file and run the same global f&r, but it takes only a couple of seconds! It’s an additional tool to use but not only do I save time but I free up my authoring software for other things.

It All Adds Up for Small Businesses

Those are just two tiny examples of the marginal gains that I’ve implemented in my daily routine. I don’t know if they actually give me a 1% benefit, I think it’s actually a lot more, but put it this way:

If I do one hundred things in my job every day and I can make each of those hundred tasks just 1 minute quicker, then I save myself almost two hours in my working day.

As a small business, those marginal gains mean that you have an extra 100 minutes to dedicate to other tasks – making a sale, updating the company blog, taking time out to learn a new business skill.

So, as Chris Hoy said about athletes, ask yourself this as a small business owner:

“How can we get better?”

By is4profit editor Paul Mackenzie Ross

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