In the Spotlight – Marginal Gains Approach to Continuously Improve

Businesses and industries worldwide have experienced some form of disruption in their daily operations over the past five months. Some have gone into hibernation some have closed, some have maintained bus.

The bottom line is most companies have lost traction in their businesses and need to find ways to effectively come back, they need guidance to move them from just surviving to thriving. This week’s In the Spotlight feature taps the expertise of Nina Sunday, author of Workplace Wisdom for 9 to Thrive’ to highlight how to achieve marginal gains for yourself or your business.

Nina’s spotlight comments:

Constant reinvention is the key to staying relevant in a world turned upside down because of COVID-19.

Are you familiar with the annual Tour de France cycle race where the peloton, (the main group of cyclists), snakes through the French countryside and villages?

Until 2012, no British cyclist had ever won the race. This lack lustre history changed with Sir Bradley Wiggins’ victory in 2012, followed by British Chris Froome winning four Tours de France, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017. The winning streak continued with British team member, Geraint Thomas, winning 2018, followed by Brit, Egan Bernal, winning 2019.

This means the British team won seven of eight Tours in close succession. What explains this amazing run of British wins? It’s not luck.

The secret? It started with their coach, Dave Brailsford, applying the business principle of Marginal Gains to the sport of cycling. It’s a philosophy of process improvement; improving every little thing by 1%. Accumulation of small 1% gains leads to a tipping point that adds up to an incredible quantum leap.

The British Team looked at every little detail around cycling and training and recovery and asked, ‘How can we do this a better way?’ They looked for 1% gains everywhere and optimised every little thing.

For example:

  • Equipment: Bike seat ergonomics were studied; they optimised shape of the seat. Tyre weight was improved.
  • Nutrition: They asked, ‘What do riders consume while riding? How can we improve that?’
  • Weekly training: ‘Can the program be revised?’
  • Sleep: By asking, ‘What pillow induces best sleep?’ they identified the best pillow to take with them to hotels.
  • Massage is part of post-training recovery. By asking, ‘Which massage gel is more effective?’ they found a 1% improvement there.
  • Health: It’s essential to enjoy good health and hygiene. By researching how to best wash their hands they were able to prevent infection.

Continuous 1% improvements over three years led to the team winning its first Tour De France in 2012. Winning six of the next seven Tours de France is not just a lucky streak. It’s the result of a culture of finding and implementing small daily improvements.

Marginal Gains Approach to Continuously Improve

What can we learn from the success of the Marginal Gains concept? Small daily improvements are key to long-term significant results.

Action Steps

1. Ask your customers, “If we could improve our service even by 1%, what would you like us to do?”

2. Don’t live with bottlenecks, delays or double-handling. Trial new ways of doing things.

3. Question everything you do. Constantly reinvent the way you do things by asking daily, “How else can we do this?”

4. Ask who, what, where, when, how and why….

Why that way?
Why then?
Why there?
Why that person?
How else this be achieved?
Who else could do that?

5. Remember the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule.  Fix the top 20% of problems; overall you’ll receive an 80% improvement.

In 1897, Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian political economist, published his observation that 80% of land was owned by 20% of the population. This is now called the 80/20 Rule or Pareto Principle and this 80/20 pattern has since been applied to most aspects of modern life.

For example, in business 80% of turnover comes from 20% of clients. 20% of efforts produces 80% of results. This means, if you have ten things to do, two of them will be more important and yield more payoff than the other eight combined. 20% of your workload are high payoff, high priority items.

A good tactic is to identify the top 20% of important tasks from your list of possible to-dos and devote 80% of your time completing these. 

6. Lead a Marginal Gains brainstorming session with your team. Empower people to contribute by offering suggestions, thereby ‘owning’ process improvement. Analyse workflow, identify bottlenecks, eliminate double-handling and duplicating of tasks. This reduces costs and improves efficiency.

It’s not about making one big change that has earth-shattering results. It’s about all the small choices we make every day that add up over time.

Waiting to implement big changes might mean the ‘same old, same old’ continues to happen. But if we get into the habit of constantly improving processes, one little bit at a time, it adds up.

Shouldn’t we all be looking for marginal gains, lots of little 1% improvements, every day that add up over time?


About Nina Sunday


Nina Sunday CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), BA, Dip Ed, is a speaker and workshop facilitator, who helps teams understand the art of influence and rapport for better client relationships and team collaboration.

Based in Brisbane, Australia, Nina is the 2020 Queensland State President of Professional Speakers Australia. She is the author of ‘Workplace Wisdom for 9 to Thrive’. Nina presents virtually and face-to-face Australia-wide and internationally.  Nina can be reached at

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