When your plane doesn't want to fly

During WWII, 12,000 heavy bombers were shot down and two out three Allied bomber crews were lost for each plane destroyed.

Ultimately over 100,000 Allied bomber crewmen were killed over Europe.

Losing your best, most expensive resources (people and machines) is never a good strategy, so the problem was quite urgent.

The planes needed more or better armour.

The Air force gathered some data on the problem.

IImage from How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

IImage from How Not To Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

They saw an opportunity for efficiency by achieving the same protection with less armour.

If you concentrate the armour on the places with the greatest need (most holes per square foot), the planes would be safer and lighter and therefore quicker.

A man named Abraham Wald, a mathematician, oversaw the project. He started by creating a simple diagram—the outline of a plane—and he marked bullet holes corresponding to where each returning bomber had been shot showing the most common areas of damage to the plane. The wings, nose, and tail were found to be the spots that needed more armor, but the challenge was that armour was (is) heavy and made the planes even more vulnerable by slowing them down.




But Wald flipped conventional logic with some impressive statistical research. If he was alive today, he’d probably be calling this Big Data.

His insight?

The Air Force didn’t need to reinforce the spots that had bullet holes. They needed to reinforce the spots that didn’t have bullet holes.

Can you see the logic of his conclusion?

The planes that had been shot in these bullet-free zones never made it home to be accounted for.

A plane shot through the wing featured on his diagram. A plane shot through the cockpit (the white area on the diagram) didn’t feature on the diagram because the plane was burning in field somewhere in enemy territory.

[Aside: A question for consultant peers: How long would the report have been giving what is essentially one line of advice?]

Some lessons:

Forest and trees and all that.

But there is more.

The people flying the planes are not always in the best position to see the answer.
A small diagram is as useful as big data.
Don’t underestimate the power of a visual representation of the problem.
There is no substitute for smart people.

Flip your thinking, it may just be all that is needed.

The source of the solution may not be the most obvious person.

The problem is not always obvious until it is obvious. Then it is obvious, of course; because well, it is obvious.

Do you have planes that don’t fly?

Sometimes business obsesses about getting more planes in the air, or worrying about getting the planes to fly faster and more efficiently.

The real problem is that it shouldn’t even be be planes. Or it may not be about getting there faster, but more about where are you flying to.

Asking the right question is really half the battle won.