One of the sensations of 2012 Olympics was the sweeping success of the British cycling team - 8 Gold, 2 Silver and 2 bronze medals. Interviewed by the BBC trackside at the Olympic velodrome, team leader Dave Brailsford explained his philosophy of marginal gains that was to make him famous beyond his sport:
"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 improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together."
In managing his team Brailsford looked at all aspects of his teams lives, not just the big factors like diet and physio but many seemingly trivial areas such as the pillows they slept on at night and the team bus. Later interviewed by Clare Balding on the radio Brailsford went further:
"If you look for innovation which are big step changes - we all look for those but they are very hard to find. Very challenging to search out. So we took the approach, more of a philosophy really, lets look for every single small step that we can find and lets take those small steps."
What’s interesting about this statement is the acknowledgement that massive innovative leaps are hard to find and we would argue hard to implement as well. At the Games the French team couldn’t understand how the British were going so much faster when they were using the same wheels. They were convinced Brailsford had masterminded some innovative leap in wheel technology. In fact he was using the same wheels as the French (When asked Brailsford told L’Equipe they were "round") and it was the team’s aggregated marginal gains in other areas that won out.
What if we were to apply the same thinking in improving legal practice? Rather than shooting for the wholesale transformation of a practice through large scale technology implementation, what if were to focus on marginal gains? Something as small as automating the production of a standardised letter that normally takes ten minutes so it can be done in 1 minute. Furthermore that automation reduces human error. Then move onto other documents and processes, at each point making marginal gains then the overall gain would be massive. We call this automation of small steps micro automation.
Let’s assume that routine work takes up 40% of a lawyers available time, the remaining time being used for work requiring human judgement, bespoke elements and communication - the real value added by a lawyer. Now let’s assume we can use process optimisation and automation to reduce the time spent on that 40% of routine work by half. That means we have now got a further 20% of the lawyers available time to populate with real value-added work. In doing so we have increased productivity by 25% (100-20=80 100/80=1.25). That is more than a marginal gain.
Finally in addition to hard measurable benefits this approach can also help make a more intangible change in culture. As British cycling Olympian Chris Hoy put it: “...most of all we point the mirror at ourselves and ask 'how can we get better?'"
In my next post I want to explore how Matthew Syed's Black Box Thinking extends and expands on the concept of marginal gains.