How to use marginal gains to improve processes and performance


Marginal gains is the theory that making small improvements in a number of different areas will significantly improve overall performance. It’s a useful way for training providers to make positive changes to processes without disrupting day-to-day operations.

There’s no better time to improve processes than January. It’s a chance to reset and refresh, and objectively think about what’s working and what you want to do differently this year.

The challenge is not only finding the time to identify and make changes, but getting your team on board. Asking people to step outside of their comfort zones and embrace new processes is no mean feat, so the marginal gains approach is a great way to make change feel more accessible.

Find out how marginal gains can drive powerful results and where to start with your own team and organisation.

The proven impact of marginal gains

One of the most famous examples of the marginal gains theory comes from an unlikely source: British Cycling.

When Sir Dave Brailsford took over, British Cycling had won just one gold medal in its 76-year history. Six years later, the team won seven out of 10 gold medals at the Beijing Olympics. As Dave told Harvard Business Review:

“It struck me that we should think small, not big, and adopt a philosophy of continuous improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains. Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements.”

Getting into the right mindset

Making slight changes sounds simple, but you need to have a goal in mind that any changes align with, whether it’s speeding up enrolment or reducing withdrawals. Without a clear objective, you risk making changes around the periphery of your business without addressing core issues.

Implementing marginal gains also means getting into the mindset of thinking small enough and having faith in the long-term cumulative impact.

The changes that Sir Dave rolled out are so minor they seem almost insignificant, but together they had a huge impact on the team’s performance.

When he realised that dust was accumulating on the floor of the mechanics area and affecting bike maintenance, he painted the floor white to make it easier to spot dirt. He hired a surgeon to teach his athletes how to properly wash their hands, in order to avoid illnesses during competition. He insisted everyone bought their own mattresses and pillows, to ensure the athletes slept with the same posture each night.

“We searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, we felt they gave us a competitive advantage,” he said.

Making a 1% change

While it’s unlikely that training providers will be painting floors or buying bedding, British Cycling’s example should provide a useful starting point to guide your thinking.

Break down each aspect of your training provision and ask yourself: what’s a 1% change I could make to improve this process?

One change might be to systemise how you review training data and reports, rather than checking in ad-hoc. Setting aside an hour each week – no matter how busy you are – to drill into your data will allow you to spot trends and make accurate, informed decisions that can have a much bigger impact.

Another might be to get more from your technology. A good learning management system is always evolving, so you might only be scratching the surface of its potential. Visit your system’s support hub to explore the latest product updates and see where you could streamline a process to improve performance.

Bring your team on the journey

Whatever you decide to improve, it’s critical to be consistent. Small changes will only be impactful if everyone on your team is committed.

Make sure everyone understands the goal you’re working towards and how any incremental changes contribute to this goal. The idea is to create a sense of shared accountability, where everyone feels like they’re contributing.

As Sir Dave Brailsford found with British Cycling, marginal gains can build enthusiasm and even encourage your team to seek out new opportunities:

“Perhaps the most powerful benefit [of marginal gains] is that it creates a contagious enthusiasm. Everyone starts looking for ways to improve. There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains – it’s similar to a scavenger hunt. People want to identify opportunities and share them with the group. Our team became a very positive place to be.”

Boost your performance with Bud in 2024

Whether you want to improve your operational efficiency, drive quality and compliance, or make your business more resilient, Bud can help you transform your training delivery. See the platform in action by booking a demo here.

Want to explore the potential of artificial intelligence in 2024? We’re looking for providers to join our pilot programme and be the first to test Bud’s new AI features. If you’d like to be involved, register your interest and we’ll be in touch.