Marginal Gains And How We Can Utilise Them

13th December 2020

A chef enters the kitchen, washing his hands and scrubbing between his fingers in a certain way. A Nurse openly admits a mistake she made while working, rather than staying silent about it. A man paints a cycling track pure white, so dirt is easier to notice.

You may be thinking to yourself; ‘What on Earth do all of these things mean? Are they related in some way?’

And they are. They, and many more actions, are all done for one thing: Improvement.

Constant Improvements create Constant Successes!

Marginal Gains IS improvement. It is the idea that improving many different facets of a task by a small percentage can add up and create bigger changes overall.

And this practice isn’t just worthwhile in an occupation like sport. There are a plethora of different jobs and examples that fall within the definition of marginal gains. You may even be using it in some shape or form without even realising it, or calling it a different name.

Needless to say, it’s an extremely important part in the cycle of growth and self-improvement. But is there more to marginal gains than meets the eye? Could we take the doctrine of Marginal Gains and use it in day-to-day life to improve ourselves?

Below are several stories and accounts from men and women that show off marginal gains in action, however small it may be. From these, and from their opinions, a definitive answer is sure to reveal itself.

Sport has always played a pivotal role in the development of Marginal Gains. In 2003, British cycling was the laughingstock of the World. They had only won a single gold medal at the Olympic games since 1908 and fared even worse in the Tour de France.

But that was before Dave Brailsford. And only five years after Brailsford took the reins of GB Cycling, the team had dominated the 2008 Olympics, winning 60% of the medals. In 2012, they set nine Olympic records and seven World records.

Marginal Gains revolutionised Cycling in Great Britain.

And this was all due to the power of marginal gains. Using the doctrine as a basis for his actions, Brailsford improved every facet of the team by a small percentage; He adjusted the seats of the riders to make them more comfortable, he rubbed alcohol on their tyres to improve their grip, and even went as far as to paint the track white, allowing them to spot dirt and dust that could degrade the performance of the bikes.

Despite many of Brailsford’s tactics seeming ridiculous, it’s impossible to argue with the results; In the space of five years, he had turned the team from a genuine laughingstock to a feared competitor. That is the power of marginal gains.

Marginal Gains is something we have been looking at for a while now.

—Alan Murray

The Head of Rugby for the East Kent District, Alan Murray, is also familiar with the power of marginal gains.

“In sport Marginal Gains is something we have been looking at for a while now.” Alan revealed in an interview.

“Even in Junior Rugby we have looked at sports science into eating healthy, food preparation before, during and after games, physical and mental wellbeing and physical recovery after games. These processes have been put in place for some years now and are rolled out to all age groups between under 13’s to under 18’s within the District.”

Rugby can be very dangerous if you're placed into the wrong role.

But being familiar with marginal gains as a concept may not equate to actually using it effectively. Luckily, Alan shared a story about how he used the doctrine to improve how they selected players for the team during a season:

“Our original trial selection for the season was based on a single training session followed by a match over a pair of two-hour sessions. We felt that this did not give us as a coaching team enough time to assess the capabilities of each player.”

“The players would arrive and be pigeon-holed into the position they played at their local club and would never have been given the opportunity to change to a position that may have suited their development growth.”

“The change we made was to invite all players for four sessions spread over a month for the selection period. This gave each boy the opportunity to bond with other players from other clubs to become a team and understand how other players outside their normal club environment played their games. It gave the coaching staff the opportunity to assess each individual player and look at how they would fit into the team giving them coaching for specific roles and positions we would ultimately be asking them to play in should they be selected.”

The previous two examples of applied marginal gains have both originated from sport. But Marginal gains can be applied to many different occupations in many different forms.

Did you know that 23.1% of all deaths in the United States are caused by preventable medical errors in hospitals?

The Virginia Mason hospital found this out the hard way in November of 2004, when a 69-year-old patient was mistakenly injected with an antiseptic. The reason for the mistake?

There were three stainless-steel bowls filled with clear liquid in that room, all without labels.

Virginia Mason places an Emphasis on Protecting Patients from Preventable Medical Errors

Since that day, the Virginia Mason Hospital used marginal gains to its fullest, constantly improving the health and safety of the hospital and the patients that resided within it.

Rather than punishing those that made mistakes on duty, the hospital asked for them to come forward when they blundered. That was how the Hospital found out that one of their nurses was colour blind, and she struggled to tell the difference between the colour-coded bands they place on the wrists of their patients.

Because the hospital changed the way they dealt with problems, they were able to prevent more deaths by simply adding words to the wristbands they gave out. A prime example of changing something small but reaping massive benefits.

If the safety and quality of care is good, it will reduce cost to the NHS in the long run.

—Michelle Rayleigh-Strutt

Working as a practice Nurse at Summerhill Surgery in Ramsgate, Michelle Rayleigh-Strutt has over 33 years of experience under her belt. Not only that, but she has had a lot of experience working with marginal Gains.

“We refer to Marginal Gains by another name, yes! In nursing we look at ‘holistic care’ which in turn means giving good care. If the safety and quality of care is good, it will reduce cost to the NHS in the long run through openness, transparency and a duty of candour.”

The health and safety of patients should be a priority for Hospitals.

Michelle also spoke about the use of Catheters in the field of medicine, and how important they can be to the health and safety of the patients she treats, as well as the money it saves for the National Health Service.

“The importance of good catheter care for patients can reduce the cost to the NHS, as a full bladder can potentially lead to sepsis, resulting in £1000 a day on a hospital bed. Not only that, but it will cause suffering, complications such as malnutrition, renal damage, confusion, chest infection, immobility, deep vein thrombosis and death.”

These infections cost the NHS over £67 Million in 2013-2014. Money like that could pay the salaries of 1,300 extra nurses. Preventing infections like that from occurring saves a lot of money to be used in treating more serious afflictions, a very good example of marginal gains.

This was easily achieved and rolled out across the whole company globally at very little cost.

—Arnaud Torchy

Health and Safety is extremely important in any profession, let alone healthcare. But cooking is one of the most important places for cleanliness.

If the hands of the chef are dirty, bacteria could spread onto their customer’s food. If a kitchen is dirty, it could cause pests to sneak in and infest, or cause accidents. Everything must be clean and sterile, and marginal gains can be used effectively in many assets of cooking because of this.

But cooking is more than just about keeping your station clean. Arnaud Torchy was a Professeur de Cuisine in France before moving to the United Kingdom and taking a job as the Executive Chef for Facebook in the EMEA Regions.

Keeping the workplace sanitised is an important part of being a good cook.

And as an executive chef, Arnaud has faced many different problems and situations that could be solved using the doctrine of marginal gains. He shared one such story here.

“As Facebook has grown, we’ve had to look at how our kitchens operate, as we’ve had to go to a ‘24 hours a day, seven days a week’ operation. One of the issues we identified was that our cooker hoods within the kitchen were having to be on during the whole time the kitchen was occupied by our staff.”

“These fans are very large in size and were running at 100% capacity the whole time. Working with our technical department we found a solution whereby the fan would only extract fumes from a canopy which was in use. Before we would have all canopies in our kitchen on and extracting air even if areas were not in use.”

Using this method, Arnaud revealed that they were able to slash their energy bill for cooking by over fifty percent. The change was minimal in cost, yet the rewards were massive: A prime example of marginal gains in action.

Using the best ingredients is also a potential Marginal Gain.

But that’s not all. Arnaud also spoke about another change he was able to implement with the company, revolving around how much food was wasted each day:

“Food wastage and its processing was also a big issue within our industry. Staff within our office are very transient with people traveling between offices, across the city and indeed between countries a lot of the time. Before, we based our food servings on an eighty percent occupancy level… But we found that our food wastage was far more than expected.

By implementing an app on our smartphones, this has enabled us to track our daily occupancy levels within the building. And for our lunch servings, which are the heaviest for our covers, the app cut any food wastage by over ninety five percent. This was easily achieved and rolled out across the whole company globally at very little cost.”

We do understand that by making small changes, bigger gains can be provided in saving and work output.

—Martin Sheridan

The different uses for marginal gains that I have explored so far have been interesting, but they all follow a trend of being used in high-effort jobs, such as cooking and sport.

Does Marginal gains have any benefits for people that work in an office, with a more mundane job? The answer is a resounding yes.

Martin Sheridan is the current Technical Services Manager for the Facebook Building within Dublin, Ireland. Martin has expressed that he’s very familiar with the doctrine of marginal gains.

“In our facilities, technical services play a key role in performance of office and staff in the workplace. We use small changes to systems to provide better performance to not only our buildings, but to the staff as well. So, the answer is yes; We do understand that by making small changes, bigger gains can be provided in saving and work output.”

Facebook's Dublin HQ.

Martin followed this statement with a small anecdote, potentially one of the best uses of marginal gains within this article, relating to the ventilation systems within his building.

“A new initiative was launched by our US counterparts. This was part of the WELL building initiative, which provides standards to adopt within the workplace that provides a better working environment for staff.”

“As part of this they suggested that by monitoring the CO2 levels within an office and ensuring that when the levels get to a certain saturation point that additional fresh air is pumped into the office space, the increased oxygen levels would stop people from feeling tired and leave them feeling more refreshed, vastly increasing productivity levels.”

“Some studies have noted that there is a 60% increase in workflow in offices where this is in place. This was easily achieved by providing sensors within the office areas which were linked back to our Building Management Systems in each office and the fresh air fan sets, set up to provide demand ventilation when CO2 levels had reached the required levels within the office area for the system to discharge.”

Marginal Gains isn’t just something to use as a method of improvement. The idea of constantly improving even the smallest facets of your work can be utilised in a philosophical way just as much as it can be used practically.

Toyota is a prime example of this. The Japanese automotive manufacturer has been constructing cars since 1937 and has spread its roots across the globe to make the company go multinational.

The company has thirteen core principles that make up their production system, which they refer to as pillars. While Hansei is used as a means of self-reflection when mistakes are made, or how Genba urges all actions and processes to be as transparent as possible, Kaizen is by far the most important pillar of them all.

A Toyota Workshop, where they build the cars to perfection.

Kaizen, which translates to ‘Continuous Improvement’ in English, is a philosophy that helps to ensure maximum quality, the elimination of waste, and improvements in efficiency, both in terms of equipment and work procedures.

Within the Toyota Production System, Kaizen humanises the workplace, empowering individual members to identify areas for improvement and suggest practical solutions. The focused activity surrounding this solution is often referred to as a ‘Kaizen Blitz’, while it is the responsibility of each member to adopt the improved standardised procedure and eliminate waste from within the local environment.

Kaizen and Marginal Gains are one and the same. While the name and origins for these processes are different, the constant strive for improvement for equipment, work ethic and overall quality show that Kaizen embodies everything we should strive to do in our day-to-day lives.

Sports, Healthcare and Managing Jobs are all important roles in society that can benefit from the doctrine of marginal gains, but what about a more relaxing part of life?

In the world of video games there is an occupation people refer to as ‘Speedrunning’. As the name suggests, the act of speedrunning is to try and complete a video game as fast as humanly possible, like a race.

Speedrunners competing together to raise money for Charity at Games Done Quick.

But Speedrunners take this idea to an entirely different level, using the very mechanics of the game to skip major chunks of a level. The faster they complete a game, the closer they get to a World record, a very prestigious award in the speedrunning community.

This isn’t just for recreation, either. There are several large-scale competitions and charities that host events for speedrunners to show off their skills for donations. Games Done Quick is one of the largest, and it has teamed up with foundations such as Doctors without Borders and Prevent Cancer Foundation over its nine-year lifespan.

This may sound like a small time save, but there are dozens of this kind of trick in any run, which add together quite effectively.

—Spleen

Spleen is a frequent attendee to these speedrunning marathons. But more than that, he holds a World Record for completing a game faster than anyone else. He reveals how the doctrine of marginal gains is used in speedrunning.

“One of the most important facets of saving time during a speedrun are the moment-to-moment time saves. Some of these are rather automatic, such as choosing to play the game in a different language so that the time required to skip dialogue is shorter.”

“Others are more skill-based; Getting from point A to point B in the shortest time possible. This can be achieved by using glitches or game-breaking tricks, but it usually comes down to just being skilled at the game and calculating the shortest possible route between the two places.”

King of Cards was the third and final free expansion for the acclaimed Indie Game "Shovel Knight".

“Probably my most practical application of this idea was with the King Knight expansion for the Shovel Knight platformer game - at the end of some levels, the game sends you to a 'Hub' which you then need to leave to progress. I realised that, instead, one can quit out of the game, then load back into it, in about the same amount of time as it takes to leave the hub otherwise.”

“Doing this, however, also skips a cutscene for a net time gain, over 20 seconds in the entire 31-minute run. This may sound like a small time save, but there are dozens of this kind of trick in any run, which add together quite effectively.”

Using small improvements across an entire run to create a far larger improvement? That sounds an awful lot like marginal gains to me, doesn’t it?

A rugby coach. A manager. A chef. A nurse. A programmer. A gamer.

They’ve spoken about their roles within the workplace and their familiarity with marginal gains. They’ve shared stories about how the doctrine has been used to improve the quality of their work, and they’ve commented on how their occupations could be further improved.

But that doesn’t answer the question posed at the beginning of this article; Can we improve our day-to-day lives using marginal gains?

There are always ways to improve things in making small changes to your daily life. The use of specialised IT equipment within the construction industry has changed the way we design, build and review things. The use of markable drawings which are cloud-based and load in real time has reduced time and delay in handing over projects by weeks.

—Alan Murray

There are many ways to do this, especially after the year we’ve spent being locked indoors. It’s very simple to adopt the WELL requirements in your own home; Just open a window to get fresh air into your house, which should instantly make you feel better.

—Martin Sheridan

One of the main ways I use to improve my life using marginal gains is in ordering foods and products for my cooking at home. Working with a local grocer, I have been able to develop a barcode app which is intelligent and enables me to order fresh produce for my cooking at home.

—Arnaud Torchy

Information Technology improves day-to-day life. Keeping connected with family through Zoom and other social platforms has proven to be valuable in communication with not only family and friends, but also with colleagues and patients.

—Michelle Rayleigh-Strutt

One skill that speedrunning teaches quite well, aside from pressing buttons very quickly, is that of passively noticing where minor improvements can be made for the sake of performance. I avoid eating bad foods, and I installed a tap next to my computer just to ensure that I drink enough water. I also make sure that there is good airflow to any room that I'm in, and it's often a good idea to switch tasks every couple of hours, to prevent oneself from getting bored.

—Spleen

There are many ways that we can utilise the doctrine of marginal gains within our day-to-day lives. A big one, especially during the chaos of this year, would be to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Removing any and all bacteria from your hands after going out is a sure-fire way to reduce the chance of falling ill and improve your day-to-day life.

Do you think marginal gains work? Have you got any ideas about marginal gains you could use in daily life? Hopefully you’re far more open-minded about the doctrine after reading this, and hopefully you will use this information in the future.

Marginal Gains And How We Can Utilise Them

13th December 2020