The Aggregation of Marginal Gains is an improvement model attributed to Dave Brailsford. When he took over as the head of British Cycling in 2002, the team was near the bottom of the rankings. Brailsford’s approach was to look at their processes in tiny detail, and improve each part by 1%, the logic being that these would all add up to a significant improvement. He talks about shipping mattresses between hotels so that athletes get a better nights’ sleep, or fastidiously cleaning the team truck to prevent dust and debris undermining the fine tuning of the bikes. And it was a success – in the 2008 and 2012 olympics, the team won 70% of the gold medals for track cycling.
I want to propose a contrasting notion – the Aggregation of Marginal Delays – the slow accumulation of tiny lags and delays in a project that add up to a significant slip in delivery performance. These delays are often so small and (at the time) inconsequential that team members just brush them off. Perhaps you need to get approval from three people with busy calendars – it might take you a few days to get in their diary. Frustrating – but we’re all busy, right? Maybe you need to request something from another which takes half a day to released to you. Annoying – but the other team’s process is clearly laid out on their website – didn’t you read it? That person you needed to get advice from has taken the afternoon off to watch their kids nativity play. Who’d begrudge them that?
But these delays, each one small and explainable, add up, both quantitatively, and culturally. None of them is worth escalating – by the time you get this in front of someone who could change it, the delay is in the past. But the cumulative impact of a few hours here, half a day there, across dozens of events, across months of work, is significant. And it sets the tone for how things are done – we, as an organisation, start to feel that it’s an acceptable state of affairs – like I said, all of the causes of the delays are reasonable, none are malicious, or the result of incompetence. And because of that, when there are delays which could be avoided, they’re often not.
I’m afraid i don’t have a silver bullet here. We’ve tried lots of things to make the impact of these delays visible, but none have worked. In most cases, the cure is worse than the disease, creating massive overhead. Here’s what we’ve tried:
- Immediate escalation – but this made people nervous, and often there was nothing to be done – are we really going to summon that team member back from their child’s school play to answer our question?
- Flagging potential bottlenecks up front – although it did help somewhat to remind team members to consider when they might have to book things in advance, too much forward planning is somewhat wasteful, and hinders the agility of the team.
- Pushing accountability down to teams – we already do this as much as we can. But the culture in our part of the organisation, which wants to move fast, is at odds with central IT services providing IT to the wider company, which needs to deliver a secure and reliable service which meets everyone’s needs. So we can’t make all the decisions.
- Capture data on areas with consistent delays – we tried to use this to systematically improve the processes in those areas, but often the teams which own them weren’t interested in change. They felt our proposed ‘improvements’ would introduce too much risk. And it was quite burdensome to track every request too.
So what can you do? In short, treat it like any other Continuous Improvement exercise – gather data, plan, execute, review.
- Introduce a system to track delays – partial data is better than none.
- Hold other teams to their SLAs, and use your data to demonstrate this.
- Run a “Delay Spotlight” in your team meetings, where team members can raise frustrating delays, and teams can brainstorm improvements. Focus pilots on areas you can control, rather than trying to change central teams.
The Aggregation of Marginal Delays is an inherent challenge in large , complex organisations, but one that we can chip away at with through collective analysis, data, communication and a mindset of continuous improvement. Remember that Marginal Gains accumulate too.