Olympic success & continuous improvement: accumulation of small gains.

Having sneaked the Tour de France success of Bradley Wiggins into my last blog I cannot resist a reference to the London 2012 Olympics. Team GB’s successes have be encapsulated by the achievements of the track cycling team which virtually swept the board in the velodrome. Members of other national teams questioned how this level of achievement was possible.

Consistent excellence – but how?

I am no cyclist, but for what it is worth I can recall the machine-like efficiency of the East German (GDR) athletics teams of the late 70s and early 1980s, particularly the dominance of the women (there was a similar story in the Olympic swimming pools during that era). A decade or so of women’s athletics was dominated by the stereotypical ‘East German shot putter’. Sadly it was a factory driven on the fuel of anabolic steroids; after reunification of Germany the coaches, who had fed drugs to thousands of unwitting athletes, were discovered and convicted of intentional bodily harm of athletes, including minors. The coaches had attempted to impose control on the athletic system by introducing a new approach (systematic drug-based training  programmes), but ultimately they failed themselves and tragically failed the athletes in their charge, many of whom suffered lifelong side-effects from the drug programme.

Most certainly, GB cycling’s head coach Dave Brailsford has achieved success without resorting to the approach of the former GDR coaches. He has used a better way. Instead of imposing a command-and-control structure on his athletes, he has developed a ‘system’ and more importantly, he appears to be applying systems thinking in the way that he manages the team. Every part of the team; cyclists, coaches, physiotherapists, equipment, clothing, catering, hotels, planning, finance, even the families of the athletes are considered part of that system.

“It was attention to detail that gave us the advantage over the other teams. We considered everything, even the smallest improvements, to give us a competitive edge. It was the accumulation of these small details that made us unbeatable.” Dave Brailsford, Team GB

Big leaps are an accumulation of many small improvements

The smallest things can be significant influencers.  For example, each British cyclist has to bring his or her own pillow and mattress to a championship. A minor detail, but it is all about a much bigger factor – ‘sleep’, which governs athlete well-being, recovery and preparation. Being settled with the right pillow means more hours of comfortable sleep which impacts race performance. A pillow does not guarantee a good night’s sleep, but it improves the chances and the possibility of a fresh athlete on the day of the race.

So what does this mean for us in progressing our changes and improvements? It suggests to me that any organisation would benefit from a culture of learning and continuous improvement; work on what you CAN influence in the reasonable hope that it will overcome the factors over which you have no influence. As Juran (1989) said – focus on the vital few rather than the trivial many to achieve your purpose then, as Senge (1990) urges, always keep an open mind to unexpected outcomes and be ready to understand what else needs to be done to improve.

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality,The Free Press, NY

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.


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