Jack Uldrich
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See the Whole Picture

Posted in Business, Data, Unlearn Strategy

Fedex-logo-470We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” – Anais Nin

 Question: Study the picture to the right? Do you notice anything unusual?

It is one of the world’s most recognizable corporate logos and yet, surprisingly, even though most people see it every day, few have ever noticed the clever arrow hidden between the letters “E” and “X.”

It is a fitting analogy for how many people view the world. We like to believe—and, in fact, we’re quite confident—we’re seeing the whole picture. Often, unfortunately, there is a glaring hole in our knowledge. To this end, did you notice the double entendre in the title of this lesson? Did you see the word “hole” was bolded in the word “Whole”?

What else aren’t we seeing? This is, of course, impossible to know because we can’t see what we can’t see. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume we’re seeing less than the complete picture and it would behoove us to unlearn the assumption that our vision is infallible.

At the height of the Second World War, Allied bombers were being gunned down by German fighters at an alarming rate. In effort to combat the problem, Allied High Command ordered an elite group of scientists to assess the situation and recommend a method for protecting Allied bombers.

After the aircraft returned to landing fields in England, the scientists studied the bombers and observed the majority were riddled with bullet holes in their tails and wings. Eighteen of the nineteen scientists recommended shielding these areas with light armament to provide additional protection.

One scientist, Abraham Wald, disagreed and offered an alternative recommendation. He suggested adding additional protection to the fuselage of the bombers. The other scientists countered that the evidence clearly indicated the fuselage was the least vulnerable area.

Wald countered that they were looking at the problem the wrong way and were seeing only those bombers that had successfully returned.  What the Allied Command was really interested in, Wald continued, were those bombers that did not return. Therefore, he reasoned, if a bomber could successfully return with its wings and tail shot up those areas didn’t need additional protection and, counter-intuitively, the area which had the fewest number of bullet holes—the fuselage—was what needed protection.

Ultimately, the Allied High Command agreed with Wald for the simple reason that he helped them see what they previously couldn’t see. Put another way, by seeing the whole picture, Wald was able to stop German fighters from putting so many holes in the fuselages of Allied bombers.

It is easy to think global business in the 21st Century has progressed to the point where such mistakes are rare, but this is far from the case. In fact, the emerging field of data mining is exposing an ever-increasing number of business metrics to new findings that contradict conventional wisdom and people’s intuition. 

For example, it might surprise you to know that when McDonald’s wanted to increase the sales of its chocolate shakes, it was surprised to discover that, counter to most of its consultants, a large number of shake buyers weren’t interested in the taste, texture or temperature of the milkshake. By studying the whole picture, one consultant, Gerald Berstell, uncovered a surprising fact: Many McDonald’s shake buyers were buying shakes in the morning.  When he delved into the matter, Berstell discovered these consumers were “hiring” the shake to perform a very specific job. These buyers wanted something they could hold with one but which wouldn’t easily spill (such hot coffee) or stain their clothes (such as a sausage McMuffin) yet could provide them some sustenance during their long morning commutes.

Homework Assignment: Data mining is uncovering a wealth of nuggets across a spectrum of industries. Readers interested in learning more are encouraged to pick up a copy of Ian Ayer’s outstanding and insightful book, Super Crunchers: Why Thinking the Numbers is the New Way to Be Smart, in order to understand how data mining can help them see the whole picture—or, should I say, see the hole in their view of the world.


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