No More Low-Hanging Fruit? Consider Improving Everything by 1 percent, the Marginal Gains Approach

Process improvement is easy when a business or specific process is performing poorly. Organizations typically go after the “low hanging fruit” first and frequently see major improvements. The phrase “low hanging fruit” is a commonly used metaphor for doing the simplest and easiest work that produces a quick fix and yields dramatic results. Eventually, all the low hanging fruit is picked. The most common question that arises at this stage is “where do we go from here?”

One strategy would be to hire Sir David John Brailsford. If you don’t have the resources to hire Brailsford, the next best thing is to study and implement his marginal gains strategy. So just exactly who is this Brailsford fellow and why would I want to do what he’s doing?

Brailsford is the former performance director of British Cycling (also known as Team Great Britain, or Team GB for short) and the current General Manager of Team Sky, a professional cycling team. Currently, both British Cycling and Team Sky are considered the gold standard in their sport. But that wasn’t always the case. Brailsford is credited with championing the “marginal gains” philosophy during his time at British Cycling.

According to Brailsford, “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 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”


For some doubting the real results of the marginal gains concept, Team GB used to be also-rans in world cycling. One pundit described the operation as “a laughing stock”. But in the last two Olympics, Team GB has captured 16 gold medals and British riders have won the Tour De France three times in the last four years. This is the power of a questioning mindset and a commitment to continuous improvement.

One article from BBC (Viewpoint: Should we all be looking for marginal gains?) provides a nice summary of the concept and a few examples of both sport and non-sport related applications.

Another article from a cycling website (http://road.cc/content/feature/187025-12-ways-team-sky-develops-those-marginal-gains) provides some good information on some the “crazy ways” (in my opinion) that Team Sky implements the marginal gains concept.

If riding or racing two-wheeled transportation (or sports in general) isn’t your thing, looking at your organization through the marginal gains lens is still a worthy venture. What impact could a 1% revenue increase or 1% cost reduction in every process or product you sell have on your organization?

Regardless of how you generate all the 1% ideas, try them. Some will work and some will fail. Either way, you will learn something. And because your organization, your customers and your suppliers are full of really smart people, the odds are pretty good that you will find more winners than losers in your big box of experiments. Don’t discount the “crazy” ideas. Those wacky ideas may be just the thing to earn you that 1%.

For more information on how Management Solutions can help you with Process Improvement, contact us at 865-963-0400.

Tim Monroe can be reached at tmonroe@managementsolutionsllc.com.Tim has worked with Management Solutions for 12 years as a Senior Program Manager and Process Improvement Specialist. He is a registered professional engineer and a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.

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Tim Monroe

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