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The aggregation of marginal gains

In 76 years, the British cycling team had only won one gold medal at the Olympic Games. No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France in its 110-year history. And in the early 2000s, British cycling was so underwhelming that one top-bike manufacturer refused to sell them their equipment for fear of damaging their reputation.

Then, in 2003, Sir David Brailsford was appointed to put British cycling on a new trajectory.

Brailsford was fascinated with Kaizen and other process-improvement techniques. He was struck by the idea to think small, not big. That it is easier to focus on manageable change where you can see specific results than to chase big ideas that may lead nowhere. He led the strategy of continuous improvement through “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which is the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

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 improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

They redesigned bike seats to make them more comfortable. Rubbed alcohol on the tyres for greater traction. Experimented with gear inside wind tunnels for smoother aerodynamics. Wore electrically heated shorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature. Used biofeedback sensors to measure athlete performance. Tested massage gels to find which led to the fastest muscle recovery. Hired a surgeon to teach proper hand-washing. Were precise about food preparation. Employed a psychologist to pre-empt the irrational brain. Painted floors white to spot dust and impurities. Reimagined the team bus to improve recuperation. Transported own mattresses and pillows to sleep in the same posture every night.

The team searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Individually, each incremental change may have seemed superfluous or random, but taken together they gave them a competitive advantage.

And as these and hundreds of other small improvements compounded, the results were there for anyone to see.

Under Brailsford’s leadership, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 6 Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.

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