Of Fighter Planes and Performance Assumptions

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In my last two articles, I discussed how basing our goals on past performance history can actually harm our future performance. 

While, in some limited instances, this can be helpful, in the long run, it's more often harmful. Because it is based on a performance assumption - if I failed, I was wrong. If I succeeded, I was right.  

But where aren't the holes? At this time of year, when we do an annual review, usually we're looking for successes and failures. Do more of one, do less of the other. But that's not the "hole" story.

Let's tackle this from a more practical and understandable view. 

In WWII, the Allies were faced with a conundrum. Their fighter planes were getting decimated by the Nazi anti-aircraft guns and their more maneuverable fighters. But here was the problem. If they added more armor, the planes became heavier, thus burning more fuel. And if you have to cross the English Channel before you even get to where you're going, fuel is going to be at a premium.  What is the best way to safely armor the plane, at the lowest rate of fuel possible?

So, enter Abraham Wald. Wald was actually born the son of a kosher baker in what is now Cluj, Romania. After attending the University of Vienna, he emmigrated to the States for a job in Colorado as the Nazi anti-Semitism heated up. He was then shortly thereafter offered a job at Columbia University. 

After the United States entered WWII, Wald became part of a top-secret group called the Statistical Research Group, charged with the math that ran the war, and answered questions like, what is the optimum amount of armor a plane needed, at the lowest rate of fuel?

Granted, not something worthy of an Academy-award-winning war drama, but still, a vital question needing an answer to save lives. 

Planes were coming home looking like Swiss cheese, with bullet holes through wings, the fuselage, and looking generally two seconds away from total collapse. 


When the group began working on this project, they were focused on the holes, because clearly, that was where the problem originated, this was where more armor is needed. 

Until Wald pointed out something. 

"Gentlemen, you need to put more armor plate on where the holes aren't because that's where the holes were on the planes that didn't return." -Abraham Wald, 1942

The assumption, that wherever the holes were, was what needed to be repaired, was invalid. A second assumption is that the planes that made it back represented a random sampling of all the planes sent - they did not. They didn't account for the hundreds of planes shot down over the ocean or occupied territories. 

These planes were not examples of what didn't work or what needed to be improved - they were examples of success. 

When we examine our successes and failures, especially in business, it is vital to also consider what our operating assumptions are.  If you go through an emergency room, you're going to see a lot of gunshot wounds to arms and legs. That doesn't mean if you get shot, you're only going to get shot in the arm or the leg - it means the people who were shot in the chest or head didn't get taken to the hospital.

They went to the morgue. 

So what are your operating assumptions when you do an annual review? Can you identify them? And secondly, are they valid?

For example, more income does not necessarily mean more time spent at the office. 

More time at home does not necessarily mean you're shirking your work. 

Time freedom is just as important as financial freedom, and they are not mutually exclusive. 

At this time of year, it is natural to do some reflecting on our successes and our failures. I would challenge you to also examine your assumptions when looking at those experiences, and even your assumptions in labeling them a success or a failure. 

A larger profit margin does not mean a success, if you sacrificed unacceptable levels of time with your family to make the deadline, and worked yourself sick. 

A smaller profit margin does not indicate a failure if you were satisfied and fulfilled with your work. 

Where are your holes? Where aren't your holes? 

Sometimes, the blind spots we take for granted - the engines on our plane- can be the foundational pieces of our success, like our marriages, our relationships with friends, our relationships with our children. 

When you catch yourself thinking in absolutes: "I'm never going to do..." "You always do..." "I always get..." "Are you ever going to..." "I absolutely will be there..."

Friend, that's when it's time to pay very close attention. 

In those moments, what is frustrating you? Where is the stress coming from? Where are the expectations you have of yourself coming from?

Or, conversely, where are you receiving joy at that moment? What is bringing you happiness or pleasure? 

These are your holes, the visible and the invisible. 

The illusion that our relationships and our personal lives do not interact with our professional lives is not only wrong, but egregiously so. 

Wald's revision of the plane data was used to armor planes through not only WWII, but the Korean and Vietnam wars as well. 

Be a survivor. Put the armor where it matters.