Figures Don’t Lie (Do They?)

This month I am revisiting one of my favorite topics, one commonly referred to as benchmarking. We are reprinting a 2000 article by my friend Afshin Fatholahi of Cottage Health in Santa Barbara, Calif., because of a burr that I cannot seem to remove from my paw – global comparative benchmarking.

There is an old saying that goes, “figures don’t lie, but liars figure,” and another one by the Hall of Fame philosopher Lawrence Peter: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”

Lately, I have heard many of my colleagues complaining about the performance of their supply chain being compared to organizations outside their own, often with punitive overtones.

I got to thinking about that, and like many men, my thoughts turned to sports, because nowhere in modern history have numbers been compiled as regularly, faithfully and accurately than in the world of sports.

And nowhere has conjecture played such a role. Here are some typical questions and some likely answers:

  • Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Answers: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth.
  • Who is the greatest athlete of all time? Answer per ESPN: Michael Jeffrey Jordan.
  • Who was the greatest hitter of all time? Answer: Ted Williams
  • Who was the greatest basketball player of all time? Answers: Jordan, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain.

What do these questions and answers have in common (hint: the answer is a male thing)? Every answer is a combination of personal preference documented by conveniently selected numbers. Every single answer is also heavily influenced by the age and personal reference points of the “rater,” such as the era in which the person grew up and the geographical region he grew up in.

Let’s take a look at my questions, and let’s apply both numbers and what is referred to in the annals of applied science as the “smell test.”

Greatest baseball player of all time? Trick question. There was only one player who mastered all aspects of the game – hitting, playing a position in the field and pitching. That person was Babe Ruth. He hit .342 for his career, belted 714 home runs, won 94 games as a pitcher and compiled a lifetime earned run average of 2.28, which ranks 17th among all-time pitchers. But ask anyone from New York who is over 60 years old who the greatest player was, and I guarantee that person will say, “Mickey Mantle,” “Willie Mays” or “Joe DiMaggio.”

Why? Personal reference, fond memories, team and player loyalty, etc.

Figures don’t tell the whole story.

Greatest Athlete? A few years ago, ESPN anointed Jordan as the Greatest Athlete of All Time, followed by Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown. One of those people played two sports professionally, failing miserably in one of them; one was a drunk; one was a one-sport-only athlete, and one was an All-American and All-Pro football player, a starting guard on his college basketball team, a college track star and the greatest lacrosse player of all time. Which one was that?

The guy who ranked fourth.

And oh, by the way, other stellar all-around athletes such as Jim Thorpe (7), Babe Didrikson (10) and Jackie Robinson (15) showed up further down the list. Didrikson, perhaps the greatest of all of them, ranked behind Jack Nicklaus, who was often referred to as “Fat Jack” in his younger days. And Vincent “Bo” Jackson – a guy who could beat Jordan at everything except basketball – came in 72nd.

What was ESPN measuring with, marketing numbers?

Greatest hitter? The numbers say that Tyrus Raymond Cobb, with a lifetime batting average of .367, was the greatest, but the numbers don’t take into consideration changes in the game such as the harder baseball, the advances in gloves and the advent of minority players. Pete Rose once said, “Ty Cobb didn’t have African-American and Latino players turning his triples into fly-outs.”

Ted Williams (.344) ranks 6th, but is the only modern (most of career after 1940) hitter in the top 10. Ted had to play night games, face relief pitchers and hit against the dreaded “slider” – all of which help make the argument that “Teddy Ballgame” was the greatest of all time.

Greatest basketball player? In basketball there are two eras – Pre-Promotional and Post-Promotional. There are also several ways to measure greatness – pure numbers and in the context of the team performance. Since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird transformed the game from a sleepy winter sport to one that is all hype and marketing, the two best players have been Jordan and James. In the pre-hype days, the best were Chamberlain (statistically), Bill Russell (team performance) and Oscar Robertson (total all-around skills).

Chamberlain probably put it best in an interview with Al Trautwig shortly before his death. He said that sports today is about hyping the present. He said that today, when any player achieves a “triple double,” which means having over 10 in three of the five major personal statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals or blocked shots), it is big news, but that if Jerry West or Oscar Robertson had a game where they “only” scored 10 points, had 10 rebounds and 10 assists, they would be upset and would have thought they had played a terrible game.

And who is responsible for taking all the statistics and turning them into meaningful performance?

Management, or in baseball, the manager. Nowhere can the importance of taking local numbers and creating meaningful performance be seen than in the 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox. In 2012 the Red Sox replaced their successful manager, Terry Francona, who had broken the “Curse of the Bambino” and won two World Series with Bobby Valentine, an aging wunderkind best known for his celebrity on ESPN and his success in managing in Japan. The team went 69-93 and Valentine was summarily dismissed at season’s end. He was replaced by John Farrell, the team’s highly respected pitching coach.

A year later, and composed of predominately the same players who toiled in ignominy in 2012, the team won 97 games, grew 25 beards and became World Series champs.


Chemistry. Chemistry takes disparate parts, puts them together and brings about sometimes miraculous and unexpected reactions – often with the help of a catalyst, someone or something that just “makes the event happen” but is not altered itself. For the 2013 Red Sox, John Farrell was that catalyst.

Finally, back to our Hall of Fame philosopher – Lawrence Peter. LP was a little guy, only 5”7” tall. He was short, slow, bowlegged, and his fingers were all messed up from his day job, but he managed to make the Hall of Fame nonetheless. No, not the Philosophers’ Hall of Fame (although he should) – the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Lawrence Peter is better known by his nickname and his last name. Lawrence Peter’s last name was Berra and his nickname Yogi.

He once said, “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.”

So too is supply chain benchmarking.

Remember, chemistry is what counts. Be a catalyst!

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