The numbers lie


I always have this incredible lack of faith in numbers and results.

They’re deceptive. Usually. They get presented in a way that seems simple, or with certain elements hidden from view, like a magic trick with wonderful distraction and sleight of hand while those in the spotlight wait for applause.

For instance, are the fries at McDonald’s really America’s favorite? They probably rack up the most sales… but… is that really the deciding factor?

Down the road from you, right now, is a place creating a plate of amazing fries. Served hot… crisp… just the right amount of seasoning… perfect. Someplace—perhaps close, perhaps not—there is a place delivering fries that would make your knees buckle if you tried to eat them while standing. They might not be perfect fries for my tastes, but they are your perfect fries. How can those tremendous fries at the local restaurant down the road and your own personal paradise ever top the sales of a franchise behemoth like McDonald’s?

Can’t be done.

Heck, a few of you likely felt an initial reaction to my questioning based upon a version of some thought that you believed McDonald’s does make some tasty fries. Well… yeah. That’s actually pretty accurate. They do. (I would add a couple of conditions to that thought. Basically an understanding that: (1) The fries are served hot. (2) Salt. Must be hot and must have salt. And honestly, the hotter, the better. Plus, lots of salt. But not too much salt. I think we can all unanimously agree on those two conditions. Given that… absolutely… tasty damn fries.)

But do you have an argument you can support that McDonald’s locations are serving America’s favorite fries? One beyond just sales numbers? Because we’ve got two very interesting scenarios being brought together.

First – What numbers are being used to determine the definition of America’s favorite? Likely sales. Pure sales. Not a blind taste test of judges. This isn’t a four out of five fry lovers agree chewing gum moment here.

Second – The wording of the statement. “America’s most popular” doesn’t ring with the same potential passion as “America’s favorite” does. If they say most popular, you know they are talking sales figures. When you bring in that word popular, lots of people will wonderfully recall hot and salty fries being served to them and think, yeah, they do serve some good fries. But they keep saying favorite.

If we set up a situation where every person that enjoyed a plate of fries now and again could be accounted for… and over the course of a week served each person anywhere between a handful and a dozen plates of brilliant fries from different sources… would the offering from McDonald’s be named the favorite?

Personally… I say they might. They are so identifiable and enjoyable and established as a comfort food, that served at their very best a ton of those asked would vote for them. Tough for Diner-Down-The-Street to overcome familiarity and comfort. But I also believe the final results might be a bit closer than McDonald’s would like us to think.

Ahh… but this wasn’t intended to be an article about fries. It was about how numbers can be twisted and presented in ways to create different results. From that… simply this…

McDonald’s saying they’re the favorite is definitely accurate in some ways, but just like the Jedi and the Sith, it’s about the information you have and the viewpoint you are trying to support. All of it’s true, and all of it’s good, from a certain point of view.

Let’s step outside of the box for a moment here.

Do you live in a cold-weather area? Ok… do you warm up your car?

For the most part, we can debate things like flow and viscosity and more as temperatures change. But, by and large, most mechanics will tell you that you don’t need to warm up your car these days. They’ll say that the way cars made now operate… the fluids involved and the equipment and the advances in technology and design and preparation… means that even if you did want to argue about some facet of warming up the car, many cars, if not most, may actually warm up better moving out on the road instead of parked in a driveway.


(And I’m guessing a good number of you already know where this is going… except…)

…most people aren’t thinking about the car and what’s going on with the engine and moving parts when they warm it up. They’re thinking about using the defrost settings to clear the windows and heating up the passenger area so they’ll be comfortable.

Warming up the car? It’s not a simple yes or no question, with simple yes or no results. Who are you asking? Where do they live? Why is the car being warmed up?

The actual numbers for whether or not warming up a car is necessary for proper operations are not directly comparable when considering the scenario of someone clearing off the windshield or wanting it nice inside from the moment they sit down and close the door.

Many years ago, I was assigned a project by my department head at work. It basically involved employee retention, which was being considered an issue company-wide. During my initial research, I became aware of several problems with the statistics we had been provided for the issue.

For one thing, in our industry our department was often considered to be primarily an entry-level area for new hires. This meant that most people accepting positions in our department were just beginning with the company. You probably would even find the majority of these people thinking they would eventually be transferring to another area… they were just trying to get their foot in the door.

And then these brand new hires were entering a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week, every day of the year operation. We were open on holidays. All of them.

The concept to understand here would be that many folks started their employment only to find it was absolutely nothing like what they thought they had accepted. When I was working on this effort, our new staff were drawn from communities almost exclusively featuring Monday thru Friday daytime work hours, finding out they were assigned to schedules with overnight hours, through the weekends and absolutely on for New Year’s Eve.

Transfers… resignations… the retention numbers featured huge percentages, and let’s not forget that some people were also fired.

Depending on how you viewed something – such as our department’s transfer rate as opposed to the company-wide rate – our department could be viewed in several different ways. Some of them actually placed us in a great place, doing better than any other group in the company.

About a month after I discussed my questions and thoughts with him, my department head and I were at a company meeting. Retention was brought up. And in announcing an overall improvement, the CEO showed numbers that not only matched some of what I had found a few weeks earlier, but also could only have been realized by changing what was being measured.

In other words… he was in front of us bragging about how employee retention had been dramatically improved. But the reality was, none of the numbers we knew to be real were showing any improvement for months (and actually, not for years). There was no way anything was any different as he spoke. Retention was the same. The improvements he was citing could only be created if something… say people transferring… were viewed differently for each set of numbers.

We could be talking about fries, stuff around your house, and results from the office… the thing is, when it comes to numbers, you can make them say pretty much anything you want them to say. It depends on perspective. It depends on time and on place and on several factors that often mean it isn’t a simple question.

It’s worth keeping in mind that most of us couldn’t say what type of gum that fifth dentist would have recommended for patients that chew gum. Inquisitive minds are more than just a hat rack. But the more important thought to understand is that inquisitive is an important part of it.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at