Fine tuning: Marginal gains

Adam Lechmere

Adam Lechmere

31 May 2017

Sometimes small changes can make a big difference. Adam Lechmere looks at what the on-trade can learn from the British cycling team about maximum efficiency

In 2003, shortly after he became performance director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford had the floors of the technical wagon painted brilliant white. Dust was accumulating and getting in the way of maintenance, he explained.

In pursuit of success, Brailsford then started deconstructing the entire operation from the cleats on the cyclists’ shoes to the cleanliness of their hands (one wag even suggested he used a wind tunnel to examine the drag effect of cyclist Laura Trott’s pigtails).

Antibacterial hand gel was deployed in order to cut down on infections; detailed research was undertaken into the relationship between speed of recovery and warm-down times.

Brailsford had espoused the doctrine of marginal gains (‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, to give it its somewhat cumbersome full title) – the idea that small changes can make a big difference. Quick wins, in short. The previously lumpen Team GB went on to win 16 gold medals and three Tours de France. The chief was getting something right.

Google now returns half a million pages of marginal gains wisdom. ‘Sleeker, richer, faster, happier... how marginal gains can change your life,’ the Evening Standard promised. Everyone from foreign exchange traders to teachers picked up on it.

It’s not a new concept, of course. Neither is ‘look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves’. But it is compelling all the same – not least because it’s just so darn flexible. And it can apply just as well to the hospitality industry, with its legions of staff and multiple, often intricate operations.

‘If you can sit down with your management team and look into all the smallest aspects of the operation, that’s where the gains lie’ Peter Myers

‘We love marginal gains. We think about it all the time,’ Karen Jones, part-owner of London restaurant chain Food & Fuel says. ‘It’s part of our management speak,’ her fellow director, Peter Myers, agrees. ‘We took the idea to our managers and the principles instantly appealed to them. It’s become part of the culture.’

Across the Food & Fuel pubs and restaurants – which include Lots Road, The Sporting Page, Coco Momo, Mel’s Vintage Beats & Breakfasts in Earlsfield – managers set out to identify marginal improvements that could be made.

If you can sit down with your management team and look into all the smallest aspects of the operation, that’s where the gains lie

Peter Myers

‘We looked at how we’d improve what the customer sees when they sit down,’ Myers says. ‘So the teams took it in turns to sit at every table in the restaurant and see if they could make the view better. It might be that they were in front of a wait station – so the priority was to keep it as clean and tidy as possible.’

At another small chain, the Camino group, managing director Richard Bigg focuses on the efficiency of space.

‘We ask how much space is wanted, are there corridors which are wasted, are you getting as much customer room as you can?’ At one Camino site, in London’s Monument, the bar/restaurant space has a ‘flex zone’ that can be bar or restaurant, which results in ‘more covers and more sales’. Bigg is planning to roll this idea out over the other venues.

Unlike Team GB, it’s difficult for a restaurant to measure how successful such operations are. But, says Myers, that’s not important. ‘It’s not about measurable financial returns. It’s all about customer experience. How to make sure each customer wants to return. That might be as simple as moving a beer font on match days so as to be able to serve more quickly.'

'You can see improvement but relating it numerically is difficult,’ Elliot Ball of The Cocktail Trading Company agrees. Like Myers, he relates marginal gains to customer satisfaction. The simple expedient of serving monkey nuts with drinks, he suggests, has a beneficial effect on the vibe. ‘They have to be opened, and people tend to fiddle with them rather than their phones. Mobile phones are the enemy of atmosphere in a bar.’

Keeping the staff happy
If customer satisfaction is important, so is the happiness of the staff – and marginal gains can have an impact here too.

‘You take care of the staff, they take care of the customers, and the customers take care of the business,’ Ball says, noting that he pays particular attention to rotas, which are regarded as a tedious chore but are nonetheless vital. ‘If you’re just trained to do them and not to do them well, then you’ll never learn consideration.’

He focuses on basics like ensuring that late openings aren’t followed by early starts, and that day and night shifts are evenly distributed with two full days off after an evening stint. ‘Changes in shift patterns make a massive difference,’ he adds.

That kind of lateral thinking is key to marginal gains. Trying to cut down on mis-orders, Cecile Mathonneau, general manager of the three restaurants owned by the Caves de Pyrene group, is trialling the supplier communication app Rekki. Orders bellowed into a mobile phone in a noisy kitchen by someone whose first language may well not be English, can go awry.

‘With this, there’s no need to use the phone at all,’ says Mathonneau. ‘Every order is automatically sent to the supplier and logged, and the chef can instantly see what the junior chefs are ordering. There are no mistakes. It’s working very well indeed.’

Some marginal gains can be measurable in hard cash – mis-ordering is expensive as well as time-consuming. Similarly, needing to economise in the wake of Brexit and the plunging pound, Mathonneau has reduced the standard wine serve to 125ml. This gives a perfect six serves per bottle, thereby eliminating the 175ml serve wastage.

Keeping an eye on wastage, arranging the furniture, sorting out shifts – isn’t this just best practice? It doesn’t matter what you call it: if your sofa’s in the right place, you’re practising Feng Shui without knowing it.

Ball laughs and quotes the best-selling book Freakonomics: ‘It’s like the fallacy of parenting manuals. If you’re the kind of person who has one, then you’re likely to
be a good parent anyway.’

Cyclist Michael Hutchinson is blunter. ‘Put simply, it’s the ruthless pursuit of the fairly obvious,’ he wrote. ‘There’s as much actual science in “marginal gains” as there is in an average copy of the Daily Mail.’

He’s got a point, but many of the greatest innovations are perfectly simple. Henry Ford did nothing more than speed up production, after all. Is there a snack more marginal – or more obvious – than the monkey nut? It takes imagination to see that giving diners something time-consuming to do with their hands will get them talking instead of scrolling. Simplicity is the most compelling thing about marginal gains: that, and obviousness. It’s easy to keep your wait stations clean, but as anyone who has had a bad table knows, such details can make the difference between coming back or not.

And they are only ever going to be details. ‘If you’re running a fairly successful business then finding one or two big initiatives to improve is difficult to do,’ Myers says. ‘But if you can sit down with your management team and look into all the smallest aspects of the operation, that’s where the gains lie.’

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