When Great Britain’s cycling team won seven out of 10 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many rivals thought this amazing achievement was due to new technology on the British bikes. The team went on to repeat the feat at the 2012 London Olympics, but this time its performance director, Dave Brailsford, went on the BBC’s Breakfast TV programme and gave away the winning formula.

“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 per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together,” he explained.

Of course, fitness and cycle technology played important roles, but other minor improvements affecting every aspect of the competitor’s performance were applied to the whole operation, including:

  • Washing hands thoroughly to mitigate infections that affect training regimes
  • Using special pillows and mattresses for more effective sleep
  • Using customized shoes
  • Wearing heated shorts to prevent muscle seizures after an event
  • Spraying alcohol on the bike’s wheels to remove dirt and increase tackiness before a standing start

Brailsford’s inspiration came from his business background. “As an MBA, I had become fascinated with kaizen and other process-improvement techniques. It struck me that we should think small, not big, and adopt a philosophy of continuous improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains. Forget about perfection; focus on progression and compound the improvements.” The success of Great Britain’s cycling team with this strategy is chronicled in a video by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Since then, the concept has been championed and applied in many real-life situations such as healthcare, education and aviation.

Of course, the same concept of marginal gains across all aspects of the operation is the essential philosophy behind the “lean” assessments that can be applied across diverse client functions such as finance and accounting, loans processing, cheque processing, customer contact centres and card account services.

A lean approach looks at all elements of how an operation is delivered, using functional road maps based on business priorities, visual management, employees, customers and the 5S workplace organisation method. It also considers performance meetings, key performance indicators (KPIs), SLAs, people and team capabilities and much, much more.

It’s not about the one big thing. It is about the small incremental improvements.

From simple things, the savings and improvements can be significant. In one programme, plus other savings of more than £3 million per annum whilst also delivering improvements in service excellence measures of between 10 per cent and 25 per cent.

Examples of lean methods at work are:

  • Using spaghetti diagrams that illustrate the physical flow of paper and having people identify improvements. Using this approach, DXC’s cheque processing operations in the United Kingdom ensured a productivity and process improvement of 15 per cent of speed to process.
  • Running daily staff huddles within a team to identify where to improve. A component supplier to a major motor manufacturer invited its customer’s workers to a daily huddle, which resulted in the extension of an existing contract, increased revenue and reduced failure demand.
  • Mapping processes using analysis and transaction log data to discover the true transactional pathways. This produces insights into variations from the happy path (a scenario with no exceptions or errors) and identifying causes of sub-optimal pathways, errors, delays and wastage.
  • Adding impact with visuals. A connector manufacturer created a visual daily update on quality, volume and delivery performance and correlated this to the team’s bonus performance. Improvements increased and performance rose, since people could see immediately how their performance related directly to their bonus payout.

In business process services (BPS), lean assessments frequently support deployments of technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA) and can significantly affect the yields. For example:

  • Wasteful and varied processes can be streamlined, making RPA much more effective and simpler to deploy, affecting a larger per cent of transactions. An end-to-end review of processes within a business area can help target automation to the right things, rather than masking more basic, solvable issues — something that often occurs with automation projects.
  • Improved workforce management can more effectively schedule both human and robotics agents, improving utilisation of both and yielding better gains from the technology.

The methodology used by the British cycling team, and its stunning success, is evidence of just how effective lean methodologies, marginal gains and a continuous improvement culture — working in tandem with technology levers — can be.