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Small Changes, Big Results

I heard an inspiring story a few years ago about bicycle racing. I was inspired by it and I have since shared it with my kids, friends and coworkers on occasion. I have used it to provoke thought and motivate our team at Hole in the Wall.

Over time the details had become a little hazy so recently I set out to rediscover this amazing tale. The search led me back to a book titled “Atomic Habits” written by James Clear.

The story goes something like this. The British Cycling team was bad. Really bad. By 2003 it had been 95 years since they had won an Olympic Gold Medal. They had never won the Tour de France, the sports premier event.  At least one racing bike manufacturer in Europe refused to sell the team bikes, not wanting its brand to be associated with them.

After nearly a century of frustration, something had to change.

Dave Brailsford was brought on board as the performance director for British Cycling. He was tasked with turning the team and program around.  A monumental job to be sure, but he had a plan.  His insight was to use an approach known as “The Aggregation of Marginal Gains”.

Dave believed that if you could break something complex down to its simplest pieces, study each of them separately looking to find a simple 1% improvement in each one, that when they were all reassembled you could achieve a significant improvement in performance.

Dave set lofty goals for the team of winning Olympic gold medals and the Tour de France. He challenged each team member to improve 1% each day.

He set to work measuring and monitoring everything related to his athletes. They examined and improved the athletes’ nutrition. They tested racing suits to find which one was the lightest and the most aerodynamic. They had new seats designed for the bikes that were more comfortable and began rubbing alcohol on the tires to improve grip. A surgeon was brought in to teach the team how to properly wash their hands to avoid catching colds and losing valuable training time.

The inside of the equipment trailer was painted white so that tiny pieces of dirt and lint that could fowl up the delicately tuned racing bikes could be easily spotted and eliminated. Mattresses and pillows were tested to see which ones provided the best rest for the cyclist.

In time, the many small improvements began to yield results.  In just 5 years they had become more than competitive. At the Beijing Olympics in 2008 Britain dominated, winning an astounding 60% of the gold medals, their first since 1908. Four years later at the London Olympics the story was the same, the team set 9 Olympic records and 6 world records.

In 2012 a British rider, Bradley Wiggins, won the Tour de France. Their first victory in that race ever. A truly amazing feat. That was followed in 2013 by another British win by Chris Froome, who also won it again in 2015, 2016 and 2017!

Between 2007 and 2017 British Cycling won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic gold medals. Such is the power of marginal gains.

A 1% improvement doesn’t seem like much. However, improving  1% a day for 365 days will yield a 37 times improvement at the end of one year!  Not 37%, 37 Times!!

Small habits, small routines, small disciplines will combine to produce surprisingly positive results over time. 

At Hole In the Wall we challenge ourselves to always look for that next small improvement. It might be a new way of doing something that saves time, or a better piece of equipment to produce a better work product, or it could be an idea that improves the customer service experience.

Each small improvement that you make may not seem significant at the moment, but over time, combined with multiple other small improvements you will achieve big results!

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