It’s a cold day. You’re out for a walk, hands thrust deep in your pockets, protecting them against the bitter wind. On the path ahead of you something glittering catches your attention. On closer inspection you see that it’s only a penny coin. Do you pick it up and pocket it? More likely you’ll carry on walking, thinking you don’t know where that coin has been, it’s so cold you don’t want to take your hands out of your pockets and anyway, it’s virtually worthless, you can’t buy anything with it.
If it was a pound coin you might have picked it up. If it wasn’t glinting but a rustling £20 note you almost certainly would have bent down and grabbed it and thought today was your lucky day. In 2003, one man who did metaphorically pickup that 1p coin was Dave Brailsford and he used it to transform British cycling. Since the start of the modern Olympics in 1908, Britain had won one solitary gold medal in cycling and our record was even worse in the most prestigious cycling race in the world, The Tour de France, which had never been won by a British cyclist in over 100 years of trying.
One penny is 1% of one pound. Dave Brailsford the newly appointed coach of British Cycling and his team broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then set out to improve it by 1 percent. Bike seats were redesigned, fabrics that were used for cycling jerseys were tested in wind tunnels even different massage oils were evaluated to see which gave the best performance. Within 5 years of starting this process that Brailsford called the “Aggregation of Marginal Gains”, the British team were dominating cycling. In the 2008 Olympics the British team won 60% of the gold medals available, in London 2012 the did even better winning 16 gold medals across the Olympic and Paralympic Games, setting seven world records in the process. The following year Bradley Wiggins won Britain’s first Tour de France and with Chris Froome and their Sky Team colleagues went on to dominate, winning 5 out of 6 Tours.
We are trying to harness this concept at work and apply it to sustainability of our projects. Throughout the design process we will be looking for those small marginal gains (as well as big ones). Whether it’s making a saving in the size of an element or reusing some existing foundations instead of building new ones, or increasing the slag content in concrete, or reducing the reinforcement by reviewing crack widths. Imagine what a difference we could make if we can be as successful as the cyclists. To help embed this practice in our work, we are developing a dashboard to help quantify and share some of these improvements. Initiatives will be peer reviewed within the app and prizes will be awarded.
By aggregating our sustainable gains we may not win any gold medals, but our eyes are set on a bigger prize – net zero. If we hit that target, we will all be winners.