I was shocked to learn recently how far behind the UK is to its European counterparts when it comes to productivity, with workplace performance during the past decade being its lowest since the 1820s!
These findings, released this week from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) got me thinking about the potential causes of this slowdown, which are still not fully understood. The could be any one of a number of complex issues – the working environment, culture, training and the technology tools businesses have available, for example.
Naturally, for any SME owner, stories around lagging productivity and staff performance are a cause for concern. But how then can employers really ensure they are getting the most from their team?
What if, just like with the British Cycling team, performance issues require some science and rigour? Prior to the current controversy now surrounding cycling, I have long considered Sir David Brailsford’s approach to marginal gains and the philosophy applied by the team.
This is perhaps more topical now than ever before, yet irrespective of personal views on how controversy around cycling has unfolded – I think there are some interesting strategic lessons to take and apply in a business context.
The theory of marginal gains
When Brailsford took over British Cycling in 2002, he believed that it was possible to increase competitive advantage if he and his team were able to break down every element that went into achieving a gold medal on a bike, and then improving each by one per cent.
He is a man that believed in and rigorously followed a process for success that worked. His team scrutinised the foods that should be included in an ideal diet for a cyclist, made tiny adjustments in aerodynamics, worked on increasing the power needed at the start of a race and on how to build endurance for all riders.
When Brailsford first took the role, he certainly didn’t have all the answers, but in following his process, he and his team effectively created a blueprint on how to win in a cycling race – no matter how competitive the world stage may have been. It was a strategy that proved successful with the British Cycling team – now widely recognised as being the best in the world.
Breaking down success, step-by-step
There are certainly a number of interesting strategic lessons that can be applied into a business context here. With some lateral thinking it is possible to break down the critical components needed for success in just about any business.
However, my conversations with SME leaders tell me that this part isn’t necessarily the issue. Most business owners do understand the steps required to succeed, they just don’t know how to measure the potential increase in marginal gains (the equivalent of unlocking Brailsford’s one per cent).
Most organisations have processes and workflows in place to ensure activities are carried out accurately and consistently, but more often than not they are muddled through on paper or are spreadsheet-based.
Few businesses facing the challenge of growth and scaling up will take the time to codify their workflows in a way that really allows for measurement, and the kind of marginal improvement needed to tackle the productivity gap. And, unless the business is a large enterprise, finding custom coded software that supports this has been an expensive and complicated task.
The key to ensuring success when applying the theory of marginal gains into the business environment is threefold:
(1) Define and map processes – Try to encapsulate them in a set of simple, flexible workflows that will allow for comprehensive reporting
(2) Assess and gauge performance – Use the data from the team working on each workflow to address problems and identify any bottlenecks where they exist
(3) Repeat and improve continuously
Define, measure, improve
The process of measurement and continuous improvement will deliver those marginal gains for business owners if they can find and adopt a suitable platform to manage their workflows, without incurring the multi-million pound spend required for enterprise business management tools.
Brailsford’s words then, that we should “forget about perfection, focus on progression and compound the improvement” are just as relevant in the business context as they are inside the velodrome.
A one per cent improvement might not be instantly noticeable, but it could make a big difference in the long run, especially if the results are cumulative and progressive.
I wonder whether it is this very mentality that could help improve productivity for UK businesses. I won’t claim to know the answer for certain, but it’s certainly thought-provoking and worth exploring further.
Michael Haddon is CEO at Kradle Software, a business software solutions platform.