An Al Duncan musing

2nd September 2012 : The remarkable Mr. Brailsford

Dave Brailsford is the Performance Director of British Cycling and General Manager of Team Sky.

Under his guidance (or as Dave would prefer 'orchestration') British Cycling has had phenomenal success at the 2008 & 2012 Olympic Games winning numerous medals, most of them Gold.
And early this summer of course, came a 'never in my lifetime' moment, when Team Sky's Sir Bradley Wiiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France.

It would take an entire book to analyse, quantify and explain Brailsford's methods and his humble beginnings as a Programme Director with British Cycling in the 90s to this summer's achievements (and mark me down for first edition when it appears).
However, in recent months I've read several articles and caught a couple of TV interviews, some common and not so alien threads dawned on me.

1. There is a better way

Brailsford is a keen student of coaching manuals and books on management technique. A book called Moneyball, written by Michael Lewis, (also an excellent 2011 film starring Brad Pitt) left an impression on him.
Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Beane recognised that the way baseball players were assessed by everyone in the game was flawed, based on outdated indicators that were a century old.
Beane drew up new criteria and enabled the Oakland Athletics, one of the smaller teams in baseball, to compete with the big-spending franchises.
“What he did was take a really refreshing, clean review of the standard thought processes that had developed over a period of God knows how long,” says Brailsford.
‘Are we measuring the right things?’ was the simple yet ground breaking question posed by Beane.

2. Purpose, Measures, Method

There is a systematic relationship between purpose (what we are here to do), measures (how we know how we are doing) and method (how we do it).
Brailsford applied a system he calls the “aggregation of marginal gains”.
In simple terms, each individual aspect, however minute, of a cycling 'goal'  - to improve performance to a winnning level - is identified, and individually improved.

3. Better measures, better thinking

Brailsford was deeply impressed by the account of Billy Beane’s management of the Oakland Athletics in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, and tried to apply the same numbers driven approach to cycling. He’s known as a numbers geek, but he balances that with close observation by true experts.
Long time media journalist Phil Liggott is quoted on his view of the Team Sky rollercoaster “They have all these measurements. So when they get to the actual events, they feel there isn’t anybody that can match what they do. They feel it should be a formality to win medals. Now, they’re expected to win.”

4. The better way to improve

The transformation of British cycling from international also-rans to powerhouse has taken 20 years.
It is a story of numerous small wins building up into bigger ones over time. 

So, what's your point Al, I hear you ask.
Well, each of the 4 headings above are Chapter Titles taken from an excellent book on Productivity Improvements within UK Industries called "Freedom from Command & Control", written by John Seddon.

It's no coincidence that there is a common theme throughout each of the above - "Moneyball", "Freedom from Command....." and Brailsford's management style.
Namely :

Can this be applied to the Horse Racing Industry?
Well, I know that Donald and his sons Garry & Callum are well aware of Brailsford and the success of his approach. Donald has already mentioned to me that he has applied such thinking to his methods in a couple of areas of stable management.

Of course, needless to say, I think Brailsford, Sedden and Lewis are visionaries of the highest order.

Moneyball by Michael Lewis published by Norton
Freedom from Command & Control (a better way to make the work work) published by Vanguard Press
can be found in a good bookshop near you (and I dare say some bad ones as well)
British Cycling - The Road to Glory a 6 part series starts on Sky Atlantic on 6th September


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