Cleaning up – the impact of marginal gains on organisational performance

A topic that has fascinated me for a long time is the impact of marginal gains on performance, inspired of course by the exploits of Dave Brailsford and British cycling.

I have been trying to apply this philosophy to my own ambition of being an effective intrapreneur (an employee of a large organisation who uses entrepreneurial skills and attitudes to disrupt the system and develop initiatives that benefit an organisation).

I have just returned from a residential at a business school, where one of the leading speakers is a leading performance coach (his other clients include British Cycling), my personal learning intention was to be more “in the moment”, less reflective and to get stuff done quicker.This article is part of my ambition to JFDI.

So for the unfamiliar the principal of marginal gains (or more formally the aggregation of marginal gains) is that seeking out improvements to lots of seemingly insignificant aspects of a task will in the aggregate lead to large gains. This is achieved through the increased contribution of the individual tasks to bottom line performance but also the development of a new culture and attitude in a team/ organisation of a focus on improvement and performance achievement.

Some of the more famous (or memorable) ‘improvements’ include searching for the optimal pillow for individual athletes and ensuring they take it with them to hotels and the teaching of the best techniques to wash their hands.

The result?

The British cycling team won 7 gold medals at the 2012 Olympics using Marginal Gains, the rest of the world combined got 3.

A lot of the activities are obvious and accessible to all, yet the deliberate commitment to excellence in the “aggregate” is what makes this approach special, unique and medal-worthy.

Inspired by this, I have been looking out for specific marginal gain opportunities in my organisation.

So back to my residential, one of the great things about the business school is the fact that they have free (good) coffee, essential after demanding lectures.

I identified approximately 40 coffee machines on campus, the coffee machines were large machines with a drip tray to capture any spillages. After collecting my coffee one morning, I observed the cleaner take the lid off the drip tray and use paper towels to soak up the liquid (not from me!) and “reset” the drip tray. This process took about 3 minutes.

The following day I noticed that she did the same thing (I timed it this time, it definitely was 3 minutes). This got me thinking about productivity and (back to the topic) marginal gains.

Either inspired by marginal gains or high on caffeine I worked out that the “cost” to the cleaning team everyday (using the continuous improvement equation) was up to 40 machines x 3 minutes, a total of 120 minutes per day (or 600 minutes per week).

This leading international business school was spending 10 hours per week soaking up coffee using paper towels – that is not a productive use of anyone’s time and has a financial cost (let’s say £75 per week, £3750 a year).

In this example its not one individual spending 1/3rd of their time cleaning up the coffee, it may be spread throughout many cleaners resulting in the task being a small component of any job (not worthy of much thought).

There are some obvious solutions here;

Have a more selective admissions policy, if you can’t collect your coffee without spilling you can’t study here

Get new coffee machines with a detachable drip tray (and pour the contents into a sink)

However the replacement cost of 40 industrial coffee machines and the need for a more inclusive admissions policy, probably prohibits those solutions.

£3,750 is a lot of money, but probably not worth any serious consideration by “management” and the individual’s may just accept that the “process is the process” and they honourably repeat this task every day.

I therefore set about thinking about the marginal gains approach and what could improve (however marginally) the productivity of the cleaning team, the business school and the environment.

I spent about brainstorming some options, and came up with the idea of equipping each cleaner with an oversized syringe, which they could use to extract the liquid.

Industrial syringe with a 1 litre capacity — It costs about £10

This would result in the liquid being removed in less than a minute, which using the above numbers would provide a time saving of about 6 hours per week. It also provides a range of other benefits, less downtime for that all-important coffee and arguably and most importantly a feeling from the cleaning team that they are valued, supported and invested in (even if it is just £10 syringe).

Now, the numbers provided in this example are probably not entirely accurate and the savings potential is probably over-stated

So, so what?

I would argue that the exact costs and savings (from this example) is not what is important here, the key learning for me was that gains, savings, efficiencies can be found anywhere.

Change a lot, a little bit to achieve more

We can all play a part in delivering gold medal worthy benefits to our organisations and to our customers.


Dave Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ came from the idea that if you break down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

Therefore, our job is to do the same except apply the concept to our own organisations.

How to apply the principles of marginal gains to Organisational Effectiveness?

1. First, decide what you want to improve (the whole organisation, a business unit or a specific product or service?)

2. Review (or create) the value chain map for the service you are delivering

3. Measure — what is the definition of success for this particular activity (e.g. KPI’s)?

4. For each activity in the value chain map, break it down to its constituent pieces (in as much detail as possible), then (via observation and other methods);

a. Identify what capabilities (people, tech, process) are required to deliver this activity (again in as much detail)

b. What does optimal performance look like? (what opportunities are there for standardisation?)

c. What other factors impact on performance?

d. What is the level of performance variation for the individual activities?

5. Apply problem solving techniques (5 Why’s, Root Cause, Appreciative inquiry etc. — ) to identify the causes of sub-optimal performance for selected components of an activity

6. Develop and test “micro-interventions” that may yield performance gains (this will also allow you to identify any adverse effects and/or optimisation opportunities)

7. Learn from the tests, Adapt and Optimise (Test, Learn, Adapt, Optimise)