Over the past decade, Britain’s track cycling team has become a powerhouse. The squad has gone from four medals at each of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics to leaving the last three Games at the top of the cycling medals table, with at least 12 in their bag. At the Rio Olympics this year, every member of the 14-strong team won at least one medal.
Sir Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director between 2003-14, is credited with much of this success, due to a philosophy of focusing on small gains in every single aspect of the team’s performance. Speaking to Harvard Business Review in 2015, Brailsford explained:
By experimenting in a wind tunnel, we searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analyzing the mechanics area in the team truck, we discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So we painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. We hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition (we also decided not to shake any hands during the Olympics). We were precise about food preparation. We brought our own mattresses and pillows so our athletes could sleep in the same posture every night. We searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, we felt they gave us a competitive advantage.
According to Brailsford, he was inspired by the Japanese business concept of kaizen, and the “continuous improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains.”
Kaizen was first popularized in the West by Masaaki Imai’s 1986 book, Kaizen: The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. He defines it as “continuous improvement… Doing little things better, setting and achieving ever higher standards.” In the workplace, everyone—”managers and workers alike”—has to be involved in the process for it to succeed.
The concept has its roots in Japan’s drive towards quality control, which some Japanese firms were experimenting with in the 1930s, as Japanologist William M. Tsutsui writes (paywall). Yet it was the aftermath of World War Two and the process of rebuilding Japan that helped propel the concept of quality—”historically a sore point for Japanese industry,” according to Tsutsui—to more prominence.
“Kaizen was essential to Japanese post-war rebuilding,” says Dr. Angus Lockyer, a lecturer in Japanese history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “[The] post-war economy relied heavily on moving up the value chain, which was in large part based on incorporating continuous improvement.”
Tsutsui writes that the Union of Japanese Scientists and Engineers (JUSE) “pioneered” the study of quality control from 1946, aiming to bring professionals together to debate best practices and add “scientific expertise to modern industry.” Soon after, US occupation forces worked with Japanese manufacturers, engineers and statisticians to examine the country’s processes of mass production. One of the most noted was US engineer and statistician William Edwards Deming, who began delivering lectures and courses in the country on statistical approaches to quality control in 1950. A year later the Deming Prize for industry quality was launched by the JUSE, soon emerging as the “premier accolade in corporate Japan,” writes Tsutsui.
The US’s involvement gave the movement more “legitimacy,” Lockyer says, but it was “Japanese actors in the immediate post-war who took the important initiatives—in seeking out foreign technologies and ideas with which to get the economy back on its feet.”
By the mid-1960s, the movement grew from being the domain of specialist staff to one adopted by more senior executives, middle management, and workers themselves, Tsutsui explains. Total Quality Control—a broader approach to management that embodied not just the earlier focus on statistical analysis, but also lessons from human relations and behavioral science—was born.
Toyota is perhaps the most famous example of kaizen in action. Since the end of World War Two the Toyota Production System has extolled the virtues of lean manufacturing: producing quality products “through the complete elimination of waste, inconsistencies, and unreasonable requirements on the production line”—notions that are core to the kaizen philosophy. While the firm has had its troubles—not least the recall of millions of its vehicles worldwide between 2009-11—much of its success and innovation over the years has been attributed to its focus on kaizen, and to improving processes rather than products.
The reason for kaizen‘s history of successes is that it simply works, says Lockyer. “Even if we think that industrial (and sporting) success is a thing of geniuses and invention, the much more important thing is tinkering… to allow for marginal gains and competitive advantage.”
Or, in Brailsford’s words: “Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements.”