Sports fans, if you love a good comeback story, this one’s a doozy. The annals of competitive British bicycle racing have been, well, pretty barren. In 76 years of Olympic competition, the team had won only a single gold medal. Its performance in the Tour de France? Forgettable: shut out of the winner’s circle in each year of the race’s 110-year history.
Then, in 2008, things changed. British racers upset the cycling world order at the Beijing Summer Olympics, dominating road and track events and capturing seven of the 10 gold medals awarded at the event. At the 2012 London Olympics, they topped that performance, setting nine Olympic records and seven world records. That same year, team member Bradley Wiggins broke the British losing streak at the Tour de France. Since then, he and other team members have repeated as champions four times in 5 years.
How did a team carrying a century-old legacy of underwhelming performance race to the podium — and stay there — in such a commanding fashion? One factor that contributed to the team’s success is the concept of marginal gains — the idea that continuously racking up small improvements in everything you do will add up to remarkable results.
If that sounds like a ready-made sports analogy that can be applied in business, you’re right. In fact, it already has been. If you’ve studied lean concepts in manufacturing or application development or you’ve heard the phrase, “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves,” the concept of marginal gains should ring familiar.
But the success of Team Sky, featured in a video by the Economist Intelligence Unit, highlights specific lessons that companies can implement in any program of continuous improvement. Here are three of them:
- Deconstruct your goals. When the racing program’s overhaul began in the early 2000s, the Olympic podium seemed far away. The team began developing its strategy by breaking down the elements of each cycling event to understand what it would take to win. Declaring a high-minded business goal such as “differentiating the company through an industry-leading customer experience” can seem similarly daunting. To make it achievable, conduct a thorough examination of the individual steps and components needed to reach that goal. Use those findings to assemble your strategy.
- Get the basics right. To begin, the team first focused on fundamentals such as training and nutrition. Incremental improvements followed. Similarly, a company seeking better returns from its e-commerce platform should make sure the core components and processes have been established. There’s no reason to spend time testing the conversion impact of different “Buy Now” button colors if your customer checkout process isn’t mobile-friendly.
- Create a questioning culture. Team Sky searched for improvements in all facets of its program, questioning every assumption and habit. In an established company with a long history of success, that can be one of the biggest challenges. But once employees realize their ideas and input are valued, it creates a contagious enthusiasm that encourages everyone to look for ways to improve.
Companies in the midst of a digital transformation have a lot to accomplish, so the idea of making incremental improvements may seem trivial. But the concept of continuous improvement through marginal gains can help a company stalled in its transition find new ways to gain momentum and make it to the winner’s circle.