Was it their strategy, was it their planning? Not really, although they definitely played a part. It was their focus on continual improvement through marginal gains and then the implementation of those improvements. They employed Dave Brailsford as their Director of Performance and one of his jobs was to look for small improvements they could make. Those 1% improvements in themselves wouldn’t amount to much, but compounded together they delivered exceptional results.
It was simple things such as small bike modifications like the angle of the seat, the use of different fabrics in their clothing, how riders would wash their hands to avoid getting sick, the best pillow to allow a good night’s sleep, simple food prep techniques, removing dust from the team truck. Anything that would give them the edge.
Brailsford was a former MBA student and had become fascinated with Kaizen (a Japanese term meaning 'change for the better' or 'continuous improvement') and other process improvement techniques. It wasn’t just Brailsford or select people in the team looking for improvements, it was everyone collectively as a team.
Brailsford said, "One caveat is that the whole marginal gains approach doesn’t work if only half the team buy in. In that case, the search for small improvements will cause resentment. If everyone is committed, in my experience it removes the fear of being singled out – there’s mutual accountability, which is the basis of great teamwork".
The result was that the team went from only winning one gold medal in its 76-year history, to winning seven out of ten gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, having the same result at London four years later, then winning six gold medals in Rio 2016.
The businesses I work with that get extra-ordinary results don’t necessarily seem to be doing that much different to other businesses. Every business needs to focus on the sales aspect of their business, get their products to market, they need to be operationally fit, they need to have good processes to control all financial aspects, and they need to have a good people plan.
The difference I see is some companies are continually looking for small improvements and how to implement them. That allows them to become what I call ‘Fit-For-Purpose’, as opposed to other businesses that might do a good job, but a lot of time it feels like ground-hog day.
So while strategy and business planning may guide direction, it's the small day-to-day improvements and their delivery that sees things actually get done. It's the systems you have in your business that allow for the ease of implementation.
In ‘Good to Great’ author Jim Collins describes it as ‘turning the flywheel’. This is where one activity propels you to complete another and another, which builds momentum. The activity on its own is not the key, but the compounding effect of all those activities that allows the business to move.
So a question to ask yourself is, "What small improvements can you and your team make in your business today that will have a compounding effect and result in big changes in the future?"