Business Before Metrics

Don’t let the pursuit of metrics hurt your basic business model. It is imperative to remember that metrics in and of themselves should supplement and enhance business decisions, but not necessarily be the end all and be all of your business. On this Memorial Day, I can think of no better example than that of the one from Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara and his “Whiz Kids”  began examining war from purely an analytics standpoint (and no, I’m not calling it a “conflict”, as it fits every definition of war regardless of the lack of a Congressional declaration). One of the key metrics used to determine how the war was progressing, along with one of the most controversial ones, was the body count. At its core, the body count metric literally counts deceased enemy troops and/or insurgents. The basic idea is that the more of the enemy you kill, then clearly the more effectively you are waging the war. Unfortunately, this logic is a bit like the tail wagging the dog. Major Michael H. Capps explains this very well in a 2013 paper on the subject, and I quote (pp. 25-6; pdf pp. 33-4):

The body count metric can be deceiving. As dead insurgents accumulate, the measures employed to kill the insurgents may create more. However, this is not the only reason to question the body count metric. A counterinsurgent might kill more insurgents when the insurgency has more bodies to spare. Insurgents must think in terms of risk.  As an insurgency increases its resources and recruits, it becomes less risky to engage the COIN force directly. While the tactical risk may not decrease greatly, the operational risk of losing 100 fighters might be less concerning to a large and growing insurgency than it is to a small and dwindling insurgency. Again, the body count metric indicates the exact opposite of its intended indication. The body count metric, therefore, is useful only if the COIN force can link it to demonstrating a shrinking insurgency. If not, it is useless.

In other words, not only does this particular metric not give you an accurate analysis point, but it can actually mislead you in the complete opposite direction of how you should be reading the data. This is a common situation in business as well. Exacerbating the issue is that often leaders will continue to pursue the faulty metric, much to the chagrin of the rank and file, and do so with complete disregard to the impact it has on their actual ability to achieve the goals of their business.

In the book Six Silent Men by Reynel Martinez (a fantastic read, FYI), Martinez and several of his fellow LRPs discuss a firefight that took place on the 1 November, 1967. The LRPs were inserted as a “Heavy” team (approximately 12 men) as a blocking force along the avenue of retreat the enemy was expected to take while being pushed by a larger force of infantry. Engaging at a range of approximately 400 yards across a series of rice paddies, a number of enemy troops were cut down when they broke from the treeline and began to cross the paddies. Soon afterwards, a second group attempted to do the same, with equivalent results.

A while later, battalion HQ ordered the team leave their cover and cross the paddies in order to count the bodies and collect the weapons. To be frank, this appears to be a tactically stupid order, as they’re asking 12 men to cross 400 yards of open ground before an undetermined number of enemy troops who may still be inside the treeline. Adding insult to injury, it appears that the only reason the order was given at all was to add to the unit body count totals. This flies in the face of the basic business model of the infantryman, which as Patton reportedly summed up so well, “The object of war is not to die for your country, but to make the other bastard die for his.” It is also completely contrary to several of the standing orders reportedly given by Robert Rogers to the original US Rangers – most specifically, order #5 – “Don’t ever take a chance you don’t have to.” (To a lesser extent, this order also violates #3, #16, and #19).  Nevertheless, the LRPs did as they were ordered and began to cross the paddies. As they were crossing, they were taken under fire by enemy soldiers in the opposite woodline, and almost immediately, George Buster Sullens, Jr. was shot several times in the chest, and died shortly thereafter.

This brave soldier’s death can be attributed to battalion command’s desire to increase their primary success metric as dictated by their chain of command. In this case, it would have been far better to simply have the LRPs stay put, giving less likelihood of having damage inflicted onto their team, as well as increasing the likelihood of the LRPs doing additional damage to the enemy. Instead of using the body count to confirm or deny how the war was progressing, they began progressing the war in ways to up the body counts. Don’t let the pursuit of a specific metric lead you into equally dumb and detrimental decisions.


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