Small Change Big Wins 961X460

Small change for big wins

01 April 2014

When it comes to making major improvements, sometimes it pays to sweat over the small stuff

‘‘You cannot improve one thing by 1,000% but you can improve 1,000 little things by 1%.” Wise words from Jan Carlzon, a Swedish businessman who famously lived and breathed this approach to help turn Scandinavian Airlines from one of the industry’s worst performers to one of the best.

The Great British Cycling Team is perhaps the most celebrated advert for this approach – commonly known as ‘marginal gains’. We all watched as it scooped medal after medal at the London 2012 Olympics. Rigorous training plans and unrivalled commitment are obvious factors in its success, but this is something that all athletes at that level possess. What we were all looking for were answers as to how the GB Cycling Team stood head and shoulders above the rest. And it would seem that its secret was to sweat over the small stuff.

Performance Director of British Cycling, Sir Dave Brailsford, clearly had the words of Jan Carlzon ringing in his ears when he implemented a programme of marginal gains that would see the GB Cycling Team achieve great success.

“Essentially, the approach is one of accumulating performance gains by making small, i.e. marginal, gains in all or many of the processes that contribute towards the final outputs of achieving the desired aim,” explains Dr David Hall, Principal Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth Business School.

Sir Dave thought of every possible area where a marginal gain could be made and took action. Taking this approach away from the cycling track, it can also prove to be effective in the world of business as Dr Hall explains: “Marginal gains have the same principles as the ‘lean’ approach, a well-known business strategy, which has its roots in Total Quality Management (TQM), a systematic management approach to continuous improvement born out of Japanese manufacturing in the 1950s and 1960s. The most well-known TQM system is Kaizen, which is most widely deployed in manufacturing, but it can be used in all business environments.”

Marginal gains have the same principles as the ‘lean’ approach, a well-known business strategy

When implementing a marginal gains approach, it is important that the whole organisation takes a unified approach. It’s not something that can be isolated to one specific person or team.

“People are the most fundamental part of marginal gains,” says Dr Hall. “To make it work, everyone should believe in it and be committed to it. The approach also needs to feed into everything the organisation does, from recruiting the right people, to rewarding people in the right way.”

Once the organisation has committed to marginal gains and the areas for improvement have been identified, small wins should start to accumulate. But as with any plan, there should be measurement criteria in place to make sure it is working. “Any business that wants to use the marginal gains approach, but has lots of processes involved in the day-to-day running of the organisation should consider Pareto Analysis, which will help it to prioritise,” Dr Hall says. “Furthermore, valid metrics play an important part in monitoring progress. Making use of Statistical Process Control (SPC) is a technique that is well known in business for analysing the measurement of improvements, and one that I would recommend.”

People are the most fundamental part of marginal gains

A number of organisations have used this approach to great effect, including the car manufacturer, Toyota. “Many manufacturing companies, particularly where advanced technologies make an important contribution, use a marginal gains approach in their continuous improvement management,” Dr Hall says.

Adopting this approach spells potentially huge improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, and following the London 2012 Olympics it is gaining popularity again as a business tool. “The story behind the success of the GB Cycling Team put marginal gains under the spotlight,” Dr Hall says.

“It’s a great example of an approach that crosses boundaries between business and sport and there is no doubt that it has caught the imagination of more people and is perhaps an ‘unintended legacy’ of the London 2012 Olympics.


“There is always room for improvement. There is always a way to make things better,” says Fiona De Antonis, Head of Operational Excellence at Equiniti, where continuous improvement is built into the company’s ethos. “We have subject matter experts and process owners throughout the organisation who take responsibility for reviewing and improving processes across the business. As a result, we have an incredibly low number of complaints – 0.02% of transactions processed. This is down to continually improving our processes to make sure the customer journey is the best that it can be.”

Continuous improvement is something Equiniti lives and breathes, along with a number of other related strategies, all of which involve establishing the root cause of any issues to prevent them from re-occurring. “Across the company we use CAPA – Corrective Action, Preventative Action – as a way of getting to the root cause and thus preventing future issues. This is a company-wide initiative, which has really paid off. We have even had customers complimenting us on our complaints resolution process, which tells me that we are doing something right,” Fiona says.