My apologies to all non-British readers, but like many of my fellow countrymen the big news at the moment is that the UK came second in the tally of medals scored at the Rio Olympics. And given that nobody expects Britain to outshine America in this particular contest, this is in effect winning the Olympics. (Particular apologies to American readers there – but when you win something every year it is inevitable that people start taking it for granted.)
So what is behind this? It isn’t as if Britain has a great track record in this contest. Only 20 years ago we came in at about 36th. Nobody who has ever visited the country will be under the impression that the place has an unusually high number of athletic bodies to choose from, and even if it did what would explain why they have become so numerous recently?
So the real question is what does it take to do well at the Olympic Games? The necessary foundations are clear and obvious enough. You need a big population and a strong economy. All the countries that do well have these, including Britain. But while both the US and China stand out from the crowd in terms of how many of them there are or how much cash they have, Britain is not particularly exceptional. Yes it is one of the bigger countries in the world and one of the wealthiest. But it is not that different to France, Germany and Korea in these and is well behind places like Japan and India overall.
So how come we did so well?
The answer seems to be to do with the process that the Olympic team followed in its preparations. The details are important, but the overall philosophy is one that is very familiar to anyone who has worked in manufacturing industry. It is the idea of continuous improvement. You keep your processes under constant review and continually look for ways to improve them.
This was applied to things at the games such as looking in detail at the design of the bicycles that cyclists used. Saving a gram on one part of the bike makes almost no difference overall. But if you save a gram on every one of a thousand components then you have a 1 Kg advantage. That is significant. The same process can be applied to making sure that the training regime is getting the best out of the time the athletes have available. General organisation is important too. So for example to avoid the risk of a local bug affecting the athletes the team brought over British food and cooks. They even had a regime of using antibacterial hand wash to make sure that no microbes that UK guts weren’t used to would slip through.
The story that came out of Rio that I liked most was that scouts had been sent out ahead of time to secure the best training facilities, with the result that the British had the only other Olympic sized swimming pool apart from the actual competition ground in the Rio area for last minute practising.
So that in a word is the answer. The UK did well as a result of continual and meticulous attention to any detail that might affect the final outcome. The good news is that anybody can do the same thing. This is also the bad news for the UK Olympic team of course. All the other teams will now be looking closely at what the UK did with the intention of replicating and if possible improving on what they have done. By the time of the next outing in Tokyo most, and probably all, of the innovations that gave the UK the edge this year will have become standard. The bar will have moved up. That is why the process is called continuous improvement. What is the last word in excellence today becomes commonplace tomorrow and inadequate by next week.
Which brings me to cosmetics. Like Olympians, cosmetic companies operate on a global field where everybody is competing. Nothing stands still. And nothing is insignificant. The way the products are formulated, the way they are made, they way they are packaged and the way they are marketed are all equally important. Every stage of the process needs to be kept under constant review and whenever an improvement can be made, that improvement needs to be made. If you are doing anything the same way today as you have done for years, there is a good chance you aren’t doing it well enough. Just like in sport, in the cosmetics business the only way to win is by continuous improvement.