Continuous Improvement: The Power of 1% Better Every Day
Continuous improvement is something we managers are always aiming for. But did you know that the most powerful ways to bring about change are sometimes also the smallest? Let’s take a look at the concept (and the math) behind being 1% better each day.
When it comes to continuous improvement, it’s hard to find a story that’s more inspirational than that of the British cycling team.
For almost 100 years the team suffered from a poor track record. They only won 1 gold medal during that time, and they won the Tour de France exactly zero times.
Finally, a man named Sir Dave Brailsford was hired to take the British cycling team in a new direction. Brailsford had a very different strategy from his predecessors.
Instead of coming up with a sweeping, revolutionary strategy he instead had the British cycling team implement small, incremental changes.
For example, they redesigned their bike seats to be more comfortable. They slept on better mattresses to improve their quality of sleep. They even painted the inside of their team truck white so it would be easier to see any dust that might creep in and affect the performance of their bike tires!
These changes might sound a bit insignificant, or even silly at first. And it’s not as though he and the team saw big results right away from doing them, either.
Fast forward five years later, the British cycling team won 12 gold medals and 7 out of 10 events at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In 2012, the team rode on to even greater victories at the Olympics in London, and that same year a British cyclist rode to a victorious 1st place in the Tour de France.
The British cycling team had evolved from being one of the most underperforming teams in Europe (at one point, a top European bike manufacturer refused to even sell bikes to them) to being one of the most successful.
But it definitely didn’t happen by luck or coincidence.
The Powerful Math Behind Being 1% Better Each Day
Brailsford’s remarkable strategy was based on a simple but powerful idea:
If you can achieve tiny, marginal gains – just 1% at a time – it will lead to a significant, cumulative effect.
Here’s how he put it:
“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 improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
Does this concept work for our teams as well as national cycling teams?
James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits (such a great book that I keep a copy on the shelf of my home office, by the way) does a great job of breaking down the math – and the results – that come from a daily 1% improvement.
The easiest way to appreciate the power of this approach is to look at a visual:
Basically, at first, you won’t see much change at all. But over time, you get exponential improvement – in fact, you’ll be 37 times better after a year than you were when you started!
Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary Change
When thinking about “change,” you might imagine a change initiative or some other big shift that requires big, disruptive adjustments in order to get meaningful results.
While there may be a time and a place for that, I’m not an advocate for dramatic change. The beauty of the Kanban method is it doesn’t define or overhaul your process – it helps you improve the process you already have.
Brailsford’s theory of “1% better” very much aligns with the Kanban philosophy of continuous improvement. It’s focused on small risk-free initiatives that make all the difference over time.
Let’s talk about the types of evolutionary change you and your teams can adopt to get these big results in the long run.
Doing More of the Things That Work
Instead of looking into a totally new method or practice, start by focusing on the things you already know work – and be consistent in doing those things.
For example, are there certain practices you’ve found that make your daily meetings more productive? Make sure you follow those practices every day, instead of sporadically.
Sometimes the solution is obvious – something you and your teams know you should be doing, but don’t always do consistently. Lean into these solutions. Commit to doing the simple, fundamental things that work.
Eliminating the Things That Don’t Work
The inversion of “doing more of what works” is just as true: make sure you identify things that lead to a loss.
In the example of the British cyclists, Brailsford knew that if the team mates had a less than optimal night’s sleep, it would affect their performance the next day.
In the Tour de France, the cyclists had to sleep at a difference location every night during the race. To make sure their quality of sleep was not left up to chance, Brailsford made sure that the same mattress and pillows were provided in each location.
Think of the practices (or lack of practices) that may lead to distraction, multitasking and context-switching. Work to eliminate those things (Remember, small steps, one at a time!)
What’s great about the 1% approach to continuous improvement is that it’s doable and rewarding. When you see the results of your efforts pay off, it leads to an upward-cycling pattern of motivation.
In the words of Sir Dave Brailsford himself:
“Perhaps the most powerful benefit 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.”
Brailsford is referring to his own cycling team, but this reality can be every bit as true for you and the teams you lead. The key is to remember that it’s “evolutionary, not revolutionary”: you may not see big results after the first few days or weeks, but you absolutely will over time!
Here at Nave, we’re also committed to continuous improvement and the tools we’ve created are designed to help you and your teams streamline your system so that you can make those marginal gains that lead to tremendous results.
You can opt in for a free 14-day trial here to try our tools out for yourself, no strings attached, before coming to a final decision →
I hope by now that I’ve motivated you to take advantage of the power behind tiny but continual, everyday improvements with your own teams.
If you know someone else who could benefit from the concept of “1% better”, please share it with them on your favorite social media channels. Thanks for tuning in with me and I’m excited to see you next week, same time and place, for more managerial goodness!
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Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.
Thanks for writing this great article. As Brailsford says, the ‘’contagious enthusiasm’ created by this mindset is the real secret sauce. I suspect many of the 1% improvements had little or no effect, but always being on the lookout for improvement opportunities, making this the team norm and mantra, created hundreds of other improvements in environment, training and attitude that were never documented. This culture led to improvements beyond what other teams focusing on the classic training elements could emulate. An important message.