Sir Dave Brailsford—the man who has led Team Sky (and now Team Ineos) to seven Tours de France victories and been responsible for numerous Olympic medals—is well-known for accrediting team success to his ‘marginal gains’ approach.
He says, “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 one percent, you will get a significant increase when you put [all those little gains] together… We are always striving for improvement, for those one percent gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”
Brailsford’s approach is all about details. Through the constant measuring and monitoring of data—everything from a cyclist’s power output, aerodynamics and bike tech, to mindset and calorie intake—the minutiae are all brought together to achieve optimal performance in all areas. This philosophy goes as far as making improvement on seemingly minor everyday things, like washing your hands, in the belief that it all adds up to a kind of all-encompassing excellence.
Brailsford’s marginal gains approach has been picked up by businesses and business leaders, both in the UK and abroad. In 2014, a paper by the Social Mobility Commission stated that the “aggregation of marginal gains” could improve the academic performance of disadvantaged students in UK schools.
The immense success that Brailsford’s methodology have brought to British cycling are undeniable. However, the truth is that the idea of marginal gains is nothing new. Brailsford himself has said he was inspired by the Japanese philosophy of ‘kaizen’.
Not exactly Japanese
When I say ‘Japanese philosophy’, I actually mean American. For the initial concept of incremental gains was developed during World War II to help the US build more, and better, weapons. Back then, the US was not the same military powerhouse we know today and the idea was if several industries made small improvements to their approach and equipment—there wasn’t enough time or budget to make sweeping changes—they could achieve significant output.
It was after the war that the US introduced the concept to the Japanese to help it rebuild its country. Typically, the Japanese improved on the concept and gave it the name ‘kaizen’, which means “Change for better”. Today, kaizen is adopted by many Japanese companies, including Toyota.
And in a November 2019 Forbes article, Takaoki Niwa, who has spent more than forty years working for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, wrote about the company’s adoption of kaizen and how it can help companies (and people) become more productive and more creative. Referencing the ever-growing demand for more commercial aircraft combined with limited resources and time to build them, Niwa says kaizen can play a huge role in solving this problem.
“Manufacturers and suppliers need to be flexible, transparent and able to respond quickly to these changes in the market,” he writes. “They cannot do this by ramping up operations alone—the supply chain, including materials, parts and assembly providers, is already at full capacity.
“Instead, everyone working in manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul, should consider adopting kaizen to help identify improvements to existing processes and how best to use new technologies.”
There’s actually mathematics behind it…
A simple rule in mathematics is if you do something continuously, you multiply its effect and the potential for growth is infinite.
We at Evolve love to talk about habit and habit creation. In fact, we have created a whole peer group workbook dedicated to it.
Good habits play very much into kaizen. Adopting good habits is like writing a to-do list—instead of being overwhelmed by the amount of tasks you have to get done, you write each one down in priority and tick them off as you complete them. By the end of the day, you see how much you’ve accomplished and it was all done using little steps.
Here’s the maths: By using kaizen principles as your foundation of habit, if you aim to improve on some area of your life by one percent each day, after a year you will have improved by 3780%. This percentage is obviously difficult to quantify in actual, physical terms, but the principle is true.
Ten kaizen tips for personal growth
- Prioritise—Know what needs your attention, and when.
- Assess yourself at the start and end of each day—What do I want to achieve? Did I do it?
- Get out of your comfort zone regularly—The more you push yourself, the more you understand how much you’re capable of.
- Minimise distractions and negative influences—Monitor your use of social media (which can be a big time-waster) and distance yourself from people who don’t fit in with your goals and principles.
- On that note, know what your principles are—Without some firm beliefs about yourself and your ambitions, you’re just drifting.
- Actively manage your stress—Schedule meditation or just spend time in a quiet place, free of distraction and worry.
- Read—One of the best ways to keep improving is to read. Make time for it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes.
- Drink more water and cut sugar and other unhealthy things from your diet—Eating well gives you more energy, strengthens your immune system and just makes you feel better about yourself. Also, our brains are mostly water, which is why it’s so important to stay well-hydrated.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is the only way to become more knowledgeable.
- Get up and go to bed at the same times each day. The value of a good night’s sleep is very underrated.