1% Improvements (Get Off The Rollercoaster)

An entrepreneur who makes millions, loses millions, and then makes millions again makes for a good story.

But how reliable is this headline-grabbing model for producing success.

Combining patience with consistent action (and an emotional resilience to boredom) may not be fun to read about, but it’s a much surer path to excellence.

William Deming proved this principle by helping entire nations to pull themselves out of the Great Depression, and Dave Brailsford proved that it works on a personal level, too.

Deming & The Kaizan Approach

William Deming was a statastician that brought his talents to the world of manufacturing. His models focused on gradual improvement of quality over time, as well as (oddly) putting your people first. He took note of commonalities among the most successful companies, validated his observations with statistical analysis, and then tested them in the real world.

After WW2, America didn’t want to hear it. The rest of the world was brought to its knees, so competing in the global market wasn’t hard. Also, the commercial philosophy of the time was quantity, not quality.

Japan, however, had been bombed back into the dark ages, and readilly welcomed Deming’s ideas to help them rebuild.

Deming’s methods improved quality over time. They made improvement inevitable, which meant an organisation that followed them closely would eventually dominate.

He worked in the automotive industry mainly. In Japanese car factories during this time, any line-worker was expected to, at any time, walk off the factory line, pull an engineer into a meeting, and show him how they might make a tiny improvement to the car design. It didn’t matter if the change would save only 1 second of production time. Any improvement that anyone noticed had to be considered.


If the movie The Last Samurai contained even a shred of cultural accuracy, I imagine this idea fell on fertile ground. Japanese culture seems to have valued quality and excellence in craftmanship for a long time, as well as humility. To point your ambitions towards the perfection of your craft and nothing more was seen as a noble way to live.

As I think we’re all aware, Japanese cars became market-dominating. Only then did America invite Deming back, where he was involved in a few other massive successes, such as the Ford Escort.

The name given to the approach Deming championed is Kaizen, which simply means “improvement”.

Deming’s “Continuous Improvement Cycle” is made of 4 steps:

  1. Plan – Write down what you’ll do and what you’ll expect.
  2. Do – Implement the plan, nothing less, and nothing more.
  3. Check – Did the plan work? Do you see your expected improvements?
  4. Act – Use the results to inform your next actions.

This cycle is to be repeated forever, and domination is virtually guaranteed.

Dave Brailsford’s 1% Path to Excellence

In 2010, Brailsford was tasked with producing a British winner of the Tour de France – somthing that had never happened before. (Thanks to James Clear for writing about this story).

He believed his team could win by following what he called the “aggregation of marginal gains.”

He and his team looked for 1% improvements in absolutely everything, even the type of pillow the cyclists used that could offer better sleep.

Brailsford believed that by following this philosophy, one of his cyclists could win the race in 5 years time. He was wrong. Bradly Wiggins won the Tour de France just 3 years later.

Get Off The Rollarcoaster of “Radical” Self-Improvement

In the article on Kaizen by The Art of Manliness, we learn that “radical innovation became the watchword in American business,” during the time leading up to Japan overtaking them in the automotive market, just 30 years after starting from scratch.

Radical innovation. That sounds familiar. It sounds almost…disruptive.

Radical or disruptive innovation is powerful when it works, but that doesn’t mean it can be relied upon. Be aware that this is what our culture glorifies (particularly if you’re into entrepreneurship or tech these days), and that doesn’t make it true.

When it comes to our carreers, our companies, and our lives, taking the Kaizen approach is the surest way to reach excellence. It takes patience, humility, commitment, and host of other “boring” traits. That’s one reason why it’s such a competitive advantage!

“Be patient with yourself. Self-growth is tender; it’s holy ground. There’s no greater investment.” 
 Stephen Covey

“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.”
—John Wooden

“Little strokes fell great oaks.”
–Benjamin Franklin



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