The Aggregation of Marginal Gains
In 2010 Dave Brailsford took over as the General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team). To take the team to new heights, Brailsford introduced the team to a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” The concept can be summed up as improving every facet of training by 1 percent so that collectively those marginal gains could equate to a larger performance improvement overall. At the 2012 Olympic Games the team dominated the competition by winning 70 percent of the gold medals available.
- If you have a 10 step process and improve every step by 1%, on aggregate, you have improved the entire process by 10%.
- “All things change in a dynamic environment. Your effort to remain what you are is what limits you.” – Mamoru Oshi
What is Progress?
I have been obsessed with process improvement since my first job out of college. I was introduced to the Six Sigma Methodology by my then company which was run by ex-GE employees. Six Sigma provides a framework for improving processes to a level of near perfect optimization and maximum efficiency. Moreover, it promotes the concept of Continuous Improvement. After being introduced to Six Sigma, I wondered if it could apply it’s concepts to my personal life. The idea being that by improving recurring activities, I could make more time and room for personal progress and development. In the British Team Sky example, they also applied process improvement to often overlooked areas. They looked for gains in things as simple as bringing their own pillows on road trips and washing hands to avoid getting sick and missing training.
I have taken my desire for optimization, and applied it to every facet of my life. I believe that I can make 10 hours work like 20 by having automated and refined many mundane tasks. No task was too small to analyze; morning routines, dining, work, outings, etc. For example, I wrote down every step I took in my morning routine and looked at ways to make each one more efficient or combine steps. Moreover, recent technological innovations have made a lot of daily routines even easier to automate and improve upon. I can personally say that the Reminders app is one of my favorite applications ever.
But efficiency for efficiency sake is not progress. The best way to measure if process improvements in the overlooked areas of your life are making a difference is by gauging if you have actually made progress on those “Someday” life goals. The idea being that, getting 1% better in areas like your morning routine or how you handle emails, should afford you more time to actually plan that long delayed vacation, learn that second language, or master a new marketable skill you have been wanting to learn. This blog has been example of a “Someday” goal that I am actively measuring progress against. I have been able to get more traction on it by creating templates, installing add-ons to extend functionality, started scheduling posts and employed other tactics to get 1% better in every facet of blogging. I measure progress in this effort by the analyzing the number of posts, engagement with posts, and consistency. Like any exercise, the more I work on an activity the more I expect to build muscle memory at it and get better and faster. Combined with critical analysis of the process itself, it’s easy to garner 1 percent improvements across multiple steps and on aggregate improve a whole process by a significant percentage.
Can you make improvements to enough areas in your life to find an extra 3 hours in a week to apply to a “Someday” goal? I am going to try in the new year to do so by eliminating any weeknight television to start. I also have some ideas for uncommon ways I can gain marginal improvements by maximizing efficiency in the activities below.
- Taming Email – eliminate almost all subscriptions and have my mail apps check for email less frequently.
- Mastering Calendar – speed up my morning & evening routines, and get better at declining activities.
- Working Smarter – define a ‘How I Work‘ process for tackling my day. Define what I do during what hours, block time for actual work, and learn to say no.
- Meal Prep – create an alternating delivery schedule of ingredients for certain meals and spend less time spent wondering what to eat.
- Staying Fit – define a fixed and stick-with-it schedule. Wear workout clothes to bed the night before.
It’s hard to see any 1% improvement as a meaningful one. Which is why it is important to look at a process from a 10,000 foot Macro level. Even something as mundane as brushing your teeth, when looked at from a bigger picture is a process that could be improved in multiple ways. From the flossing step and type of floss, to keeping track of time to make sure you get a whole two minutes in, along with the motion of brushing, even making sure you use the right kind of mouthwash consistently. Improving each of these tasks by 1% could improve the whole process by 5%. Stretched out over time one could potentially see a 20% improvement in overall oral health and fewer trips to the dentist. This is an elementary example, but one anybody could tackle.
Another reason we fail to pursue continuous improvement is because we set artificial limits on ourselves, defining who we are and are capable of. We think of ourselves as students for only a finite period of our lives. We picture our adult selves as set in our ways and unable to change. We keep our dreams and goals on the “Someday” list instead of moving them to the “Today” list. We have to be willing to become life long learners, before we can see any marginal gains. We must believe that we are not permanently indoctrinated in set of beliefs and ideas.
One of the key take I want to share about my own journey of continuous improvement is that planning and being pro-active are paramount. You can’t optimize anything that you are always scrambling to complete. I plan very far ahead for most people, but it works for me and I see the benefits. For everyone else, I think just planning out the next day the night before is a good way to start. Lastly, the solutions you implement into a process should be scalable and repeatable. Scalable, so that they can be adapted as the system or activity grows from it’s original scope. Repeatable, so that you can succeed frequently and measure that success over time. One example would be designing a workout program that can go from home gym to large fitness studio and can be done anytime of year and measuring if you are making progress towards that weight loss or achieving that competitive state before the big race.