What Really Sunk the Titanic?

Friday, March 27, 2009 by Tripp Babbitt
O.K., I know about the big iceberg.  What I am talking about precedes the contact between metal and ice.  This is more a lesson in a management style that existed on April 12, 1912 and still exists today. Yes, the 1,517 souls that lost their lives that day could have been spared with more lifeboats.  A fact that preceded all this caught my attention.

You see when the Titanic left port in Southampton, England on April 10, 1912 they had a group of ship-to-shore operators that were paid for each message that they dispatched.  This was early adoption of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management theory.  Pay per piece had gained popularity as well as the separation of work.

When the Titanic left Cherbourg, France for the US it had a prestigious list of passengers for her day.  All of these folks were in important positions Broadway producers and actors, important business people and the like.  All of these elite passengers needed to send messages and the operators were more than willing to comply based on their pay-per-message scheme.

As the ship sailed, messages came to operators at a rapid pace, but other messages also were coming to the ship’s operators.  You see, other ships were calling in messages to the Titanic about . . . icebergs.  The calls were burdensome to the operators as they got paid for the messages they sent, not the incoming ones from other ships warning of impending danger.  No one knows for sure, but it is believed from all accounts that only a couple of the many calls to the Titanic made it to the bridge or ultimately Captain Edward J. Smith.

The rest is history.   The de facto purpose of the operators was to make money by completing ship-to-shore communications.  Had they not had the external incentive, would they have communicated more iceberg citings?  No one knows for sure, but it might have saved the Titanic from its  infamous end.

Our service organizations are like modern day Titanics, clouding our future with bonuses and incentives.  Would the current recession have happened if short-term thinking, bonuses and incentives and other poor management practices had disappeared in 1912 with the Titanic?  We will never know.

What I do know is that it has been proved over and over again that scientific management theory, bonuses and incentives will always get us less.  Purpose gives way to greed.

The way of the future is systems thinking born from W. Edwards Deming, Taiichi Ohno and John Seddon.  I urge all to learn how to prevent their Titanic by downloading (free) "Understanding Your Organization as a System" which has an overview of a better "systems thinking" way.

Comments for What Really Sunk the Titanic?

Friday, March 27, 2009 by Robby Slaughter:
There’s a great deal of debate about what actually happened on the Titanic in the fatal hours before the iceberg struck. Yes, the operators *were* paid for messages and probably did not relay news of icebergs, but the North Atlantic was full of icebergs that April and every captain took precautions. One key strategy: reduce speed in low visibility. Hubris and incentive may have prevented the captain from choosing this route, as his compensation increased for on-time arrival and his standing with the White Star Line would surely rise by making port a full day early. Another key strategy: watch the sea with binoculars. Unfortunately, this simple device was locked in a cabinet and the key accidentally left on shore. Perhaps if the lookout could only have seen a little farther, 1,517 people could have been saved. Nevertheless, whether the Titanic was lost due to ignored messages, driving too fast, or misplaced keys, the failure lies with top-down, control-driven management. Somebody trying to maximize profits thought it would be a great idea to pay telegraph operators per message. Somebody trying to squeeze more productivity out of a route created dangerous incentives. Somebody trying to minimize losses thought it would be a great idea to keep the binoculars locked away so they would be less likely to be lost or stolen. If your business strategy is based on short-term thinking, you will have long-term failure. (I covered the key theory on my personal blog back in 2007 at: http://www.robbyslaughter.com/blog/?2007-08-29)

Leave a comment