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The Pitfalls of Misinterpreting KPIs: Lessons from World War II

Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are important navigational tools for businesses and organizations. However, misinterpreting these metrics can lead to misguided decisions and unintended consequences. One aspect often overlooked is the influence of bias, which can significantly impact the way KPIs are interpreted. This article delves into the world of KPI misinterpretation, shedding light on the historical example of survivor bias at the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II.

The Illusion of Success

KPIs are meant to reflect performance accurately, but they can become distorted when bias enters the equation. One prevalent form of bias is survivor bias, a cognitive error that occurs when only successful outcomes are considered, while failures are overlooked. This distortion creates an illusion of success and can be particularly insidious when assessing historical data.

The RAF-story from World War II

During World War II, the RAF faced the formidable challenge of improving aircraft survivability. The natural inclination was to reinforce the areas that showed the most damage on returning planes, assuming these were the most vulnerable. See picture below. However, statistician Abraham Wald challenged this approach.

Survivor Bias in Action

Wald’s insight into survivor bias became evident when he pointed out that the planes that returned were the ones that could withstand damage to certain areas. The focus needed to shift to reinforcing the areas that showed no damage on the returning planes—the areas that, if hit, would likely result in the plane not returning at all.

Implications for KPIs

The RAF’s story serves as a powerful lesson in the dangers of misinterpreting KPIs. Survivor bias can skew perceptions, leading organizations to reinforce what seems successful while neglecting critical areas that could lead to failure. In the business world, this bias can manifest in decisions based on short-term successes, overlooking potential long-term risks.

Guarding Against Bias

To mitigate the impact of bias, organizations must actively guard against the pitfalls of misinterpreting KPIs. This involves a nuanced approach to data analysis, acknowledging the limitations of singular metrics and considering a broader context. Recognizing and addressing bias requires a commitment to seeking out diverse perspectives and questioning assumptions.


This example from World War II serves as a reminder of the importance of recognizing and mitigating bias in interpreting KPIs. Survivor bias, in particular, can lead organizations down a dangerous path by reinforcing the illusion of success. To navigate the complexities of performance metrics successfully, businesses must approach KPIs with a critical eye, acknowledging the potential for bias and striving for a more comprehensive understanding of success and failure.

How do you think organizations can cultivate a culture of unbiased analysis, ensuring that their pursuit of success isn’t clouded by the shadows of survivor bias?

Read more: When data gives the wrong solution

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