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IT Service Excellence – The Dave Brailsford Way

January 10, 2013

Just recently I was reading about the success of Team Sky professional cycling and the outstanding achievements of the GB&I cycling team at the London Olympic Games. I was struck by how the approach of Dave Brailsford, as head of the GB&I team and the Sky Team Principal, was similar to my own method that I deploy whenever I am in a service delivery role or advising my clients on moving their IT capability forward. Of course, different firms and organisations have different challenges but this generic approach has worked for me many times.

Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Dave Brailsford’s (now Sir Dave Brailsford after his knighthood in the recent New Year Honours) approach is widely known as the “aggregation of marginal gains” – perhaps not the most succinct catchphrase but certainly nobody can argue about its success.

From the Team Sky website:

“We’ve got this saying, ‘performance by the aggregation of marginal gains’, it means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

“If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do.”

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Britain’s phenomenal success in track cycling, and which led to the outstanding performance of Bradley Wiggins and the Sky team in winning the 2012 Tour de France.

What has this got to do with IT Service Excellence?

My approach to improving IT Service is not to consider the service as a single entity but the sum of a whole range of elements that must all be configured and managed professionally and that come together to provide a service that my customers need. First I break the capability into big pieces – typically infrastructure, applications, processes, organisation and third parties.

Next I take each of these components and break them down again, so for infrastructure you might consider overall resilience, server specification, WAN management, operating system patch levels, environmental software configuration etc, etc. For organisation you might consider team structure, skills, culture, task management, communication. For processes, I considered each of the ITIL processes in turn.

Benchmark and Plan

After investigating each of the areas and each of the smaller component elements I compare what I find against what (in my view) excellent looks like. This investigation and benchmarking exercise will typically take two to three weeks. Given that I have deployed this method a number of times it’s unsurprising that I have found good, average and poor – but I’ve yet to find an IT Service that cannot be improved!

My approach is then to set out a (typically) 13 week improvement programme that prioritizes the areas for improvement and sets targets in each component (each of these are the incremental gains that Brailsford describes) with individual members of the IT Team having a responsibility for planning and executing specified enhancements. It’s important at this point to be clear about what is in scope and which improvements have been set aside for future programmes. Make sure the programme can be delivered, those responsible for building the improvements must commit to delivery and should be challenged to make sure their plans are achievable (remember that many of these folks will have ‘day jobs’ to do as well as improvements to deliver).

Before kicking off the programme, I communicate my findings and improvement approach to my customers (Exec Management Team, Partner groups or whoever has responsibility for the governance of IT) through a set of three charts – the first showing where we are against a minimum standard, a ‘par for the course’ standard and an ‘outstanding’ target. The second showing where we aim to be after 13 weeks and the third, an aspirational target of where we might get to in 12 months.

This method of communication is not a scientific assessment of the IT capability or service but I have found it to be effective in quickly summarising where we are and where we need to get to. It also shows where the improvement programme will focus and why.

The following charts are generic and show what I might typically present:

pic 1

Slide 1 – An initial benchmark showing a firm with an IT service that is not quite at the ‘minimum standard’ and who should focus initially on process improvement and third party management.

pic 2

Slide 2 – an overall target of where a three month service improvement programme might realise improvements and establish a service (just) above the ‘minimum standard’.

pic 3

Slide 3 – An aspirational slide of where a firm may wish to get to in around 12 months.


Service Improvement Programme

With buy in from the customers established it’s down to good old project management discipline – discrete and measurable deliverables (the incremental gains), cross work-stream communication, regular reviews and reporting – I think you know the sort of stuff.

Once the time is up and the improvements are established – review the achievements, consider the next priorities and do it again! I guess that what a continuous improvement programme is all about.



Dave Brailsford has achieved some incredible successes – but his approach is not rocket science. If you dissect your end to end IT capability and identify improvements in each small element then you can quickly make a step change improvement in your IT service. 


Be interested to hear your views.


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