Incremental Gains Add Up Over Time

The Tortoise and the Hare is one of Aesop’s Fables.

The story concerns a Hare who ridicules a slow-moving Tortoise and is challenged by the tortoise to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, takes a nap midway through the course. When the Hare awakes however, he finds that his competitor, crawling slowly but steadily, has arrived before him. (Summary from Wikipedia)

“Slow and steady wins the race” is how I’ve heard the moral of the story expressed.  It’s a simple concept for leaders to embrace.   Incremental gains in effectiveness and efficiency may not seem all that important (or glamorous), but as long as you keep improving in small but very steady ways, you’ll soon leave the competition in the dust.

Consider this article titled; “What Would Happen If You improved Everything by 1%: The Science of Marginal Gains” (Click HERE).  The author, James Clear, paints the picture vividly by recalling the efforts of the British cycling team to win the Tour DeFrance:

No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, but as the new General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team), that’s what Brailsford was asked to do.

His approach was simple.

Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as the “1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

They started by optimizing the things you might expect: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tires.

But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.

Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years time.

He was wrong. They won it in three years.

So in business, and in our personal life, small but deterministic changes can lead to bigger and better results.  I think this can be true in safety areas, too.

Large_Trucks_Cover_Front-300x287From the driver’s perspective, habits (productive or risky) develop over time from small choices made and small risks taken which are reinforced as acceptable (i.e. speeding daily without having a crash, using a hand held cell phone repeatedly without a crash, etc.)

These choices (good or bad) either take us to better performance (eating more healthy each day, getting more rest from a consistent sleep schedule, etc.) or lead us towards a bad outcome (crashes due to unchecked risk-taking.)  Driver coaching feedback should get drivers to incrementally change to conform to existing policy.  We’re not suggesting letting them break rules, but consistent monitoring and reinforcement of following the rules may work better than trying to get them to change overnight by means of hours of re-training, etc.

Driver Communication Plans foster two-way discussion about goals and outcomes (results) that can be a valuable tool in getting strong performance (https://safetyismygoal.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/driver-management-communication-plans-part-1/)

smc 1Similarly, from a management standpoint, arriving at a poor BASIC score isn’t (typically) done overnight with one bad event, but over time with holes in the enforcement of policies designed to keep drivers safe, cargo secured, etc.

The discovery that a driver has become a chronic risk taker, or that a management team has developed inappropriate BASIC scores isn’t something that can be changed immediately.  Just as it took time to get to this point, it will take discipline and patience to get everything back on track.

marginal gains

Leveraging your current investment in safety programming (fine tuning for improved performance) is a great place to start.  Details like policy enforcement, training utilization, maximizing vendor relationships, fine tuning management reporting to identify key performance metrics may be mundane, but can yield significant dividends.

You might also consider setting highly tailored, short term objectives related to recent trends in loss (Crash/Injury) activity, and pushing for verified achievement before tackling additional areas of improvement (no one can easily win a wrestling match against an eight-armed octopus — focus and step-wise implementation are important).

TeleMaticsI recently attended a GPS conference where a very large delivery fleet (thousands of trucks ranging from class 3 thru class 8) talked about their success in rolling out telematics.

While they recognized that telematics could help them in hundreds of ways, they focused on one metric to start with and mastered that one thing, then moved on to another until it was mastered also.  Did they “leave money on the table” by not setting multiple goals in multiple areas?  They felt that if they had tried to tackle too many details all at once they might have failed in all areas.  By staying focused and working the incremental gain, they mastered their system and are getting amazing results (with plenty of ROI waiting in the wings, too.)

Communicating each “small win” to the team helps keep them motivated, too.

Slow and steady wins the race.

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