Armor the engines: How WWII-era statisticians inspire good business practices

Military aircraft, date and location not specified | Photo by Jonathan Ridley/Unsplash, St. George News

FEATURE — Abraham Wald is a little-known name.

He died in 1950 in India at 48 in a plane crash, but he had a major impact on the Allied victory in the Second World War. And without him, we may have lost. A Hungarian-Jewish mathematician born in Transylvania, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1938. And by 1943, Wald was involved in one of the most top-secret organizations of the war effort –the Statistical Research Group (SRG). The SRG was created to look at the statistics of the war and answer questions for the top brass, finding ways to win the war faster.

The German Blitzkrieg taught Allied commanders many different things about war, but one of the most poignant lessons was that military success on land could not be negotiated independent of air and naval support. The allies set out to win the war in the skies of Europe before they could win the ground war. This was a steep proposition. Although the Battle of Britain had shown the weaknesses in the German Luftwaffe, it was a defensive air war. Winning an offensive war in the skies was a different proposition. And as the air war intensified, survival rates were plummeted.

Here’s the problem posed to the SRG. Aircraft are expensive, so we don’t want to lose them. We need to armor them. But armoring them makes them heavier and less maneuverable. So, we can’t armor them too much or too little. Where do we need to reinforce our aircraft to ensure more men make it home?

The SRG dove into the project. The collected detailed information about where bullets had hit surviving aircraft, created graphic mockups, and examined the data. The team realized the bullet impacts weren’t evenly distributed throughout the aircraft. Some members of the SRG provided recommendations: concentrate armor in the areas where the bullets were landing and you would, they hypothesized see an increase in returning aircraft.

Abraham Wald disagreed, and exposed the flaw in their thinking. He realized that the unequal distribution of bullet holes on the aircraft didn’t mean what his colleagues thought. Given the number of rounds fired, there should be an even distribution of holes in the aircraft, but there wasn’t. Where were the missing holes? The answer was clear. They were on the downed aircraft.

Assembly line workers contribute to the production of A-20 attack bombers in the Douglas Aircraft plant at Long Beach, Calif., October 1942 | Public domain image, St. George News

They shouldn’t be reinforcing the areas where the bullets were reaching their targets, because those clearly didn’t have deadly results. The aircraft had returned. Instead, he said that the aircraft should be reinforced in the places where there were no bullet-holes: the engines and cockpit.

Wald’s recommendations were implemented immediately, and while it is impossible to know just how many American lives were saved, I’m sure that number is high.

For business owners there are a million things that demand their attention, whether or not they really need it. A million little things that seem significant, but just aren’t. In the grand scheme of things, these little unimportant things are just that: little and or unimportant. They make us feel great, but they don’t really make a difference.

When you armor the bullet holes you exhaust yourself working in your business because you don’t trust your team to step up to assist you. When you armor the engines you trust your team and work on your business, finding ways to implement your vision to better help service your customers, as well as expanding your vision to do even more or be the best.

Let’s say your online reviews used to be amazing, and have been dropping over the past few months. What was once 4.25 stars is now 2.5 stars and dropping. Customers are turning away, complaining that orders take too long. Your employees are working as hard as they ever have, maybe harder. To armor the bullet holes, you’d talk to your team and demand more from them. You’d respond to the reviews yourself. You’d insert yourself into the process over and over. Your lack of trust disenfranchises your employees and shrinks the overall capacity of the company. You’ve made MORE work for yourself by armoring the bullet-holes.

Military aircraft, date and location not specified | Photo by Photo by Museums Victoria/Unsplash, St. George News

To armor the engines, you trust your team, and your customers you look into your processes to see where they are holding you back. Then work with the team to find process improvements that reduce the time, labor, and stress on everyone while maintaining high levels of quality. Armoring the engines increases team engagement, reduces stress, and increases what you can do with the same resources. You do more with less.

Perhaps you own a company that has stalled out. You are pushed to the limit and the team can see it. Armoring the bullet holes would be to “hustle” more. But, this just makes your business more reliant on you, increases the risk of burnout, and reduces employee engagement. Armoring the engines would mean that you trust your team and pass off what you can to them, and stop working in the business. You start to look at what you can do to make your business profitable. You discover you’re overselling unprofitable products. You change your focus and suddenly you’re raking in the cash. All because you armored the engine.

Here’s the deal: Wald got it. He understood that you need to do the things that actually make a difference, and those things are not easily observable. In order to reach his conclusions, Wald had to take a step back and think differently from everyone else around him. He had to stop working in the problem and start to work on the problem. And as a result thousands of lives were saved.

As a business owner, when you armor the engine your team also takes ownership of the business. You find solutions to problems together, and you make more money and happier customers in the process.

Keep your sword sharp.

Written by ZACHARY STUCKI. Stucki is a business consultant based in St. George, Utah, with years of experience helping companies hit their targets and scale their businesses. He holds an MBA from Arizona State University and focuses on supplying clients with the latest solutions, as well as time-tested solutions garnered through human history. Contact Stucki at [email protected].

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