The Weekly Reflektion Week 41 / 2019

This week’s Reflektion is inspired by the Titanic disaster in 1912, and the company management mantra. Thanks to Ole Martin Dahle for bringing this to our attention.

Does your company have an HSE vision? What do you do to operationalise it?

Most companies have, in their governing documentation, a statement summing up the attitude with respect to safety that owners, directors and management expect the employees to follow. The White Star Line, the owners of the Titanic, the famous liner that sank during its maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, had such a mantra. In 1912, the year of the disaster where 1500 people lost their lives, every White Star Line ship had a framed statement in the chart room claiming, “Safety outweighing every other consideration”. This is perhaps similar to the one your company uses.

Given this statement, it is interesting to revisit some of the decisions taken leading up to the disaster. The context surrounding the luxury liner business at the start of the 20th Century was competition for the market and developing company reputation was important. One important unofficial accolade in the travel industry was the Blue Riband awarded to the highest average speed for Transatlantic crossing, both eastwards and westwards. The biggest rival to the White Star Line was the Cunard line, who, with the Mauretania, held the Blue Riband both eastbound from 1907 and westbound from 1909, records that stood for a 20-year period., The White Star Line wanted to challenge these records.

The Olympic class of passenger liners, with the Olympic, the Titanic, and the Britannia were designed both for luxury, and also to challenge the Cunard dominance in the race for the Blue Riband. In June 1911, the maiden voyage of the Olympic was a success, but while docking in New York harbour, the ship collided with a tug, almost sinking it. The Captain of the Olympic was Captain Edward Smith. In September 1911, the Olympic collided with a British warship near the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England. The HMS Hawke was almost sunk, and the Olympic was given the blame for the incident. The Captain was again Captain Edward Smith.

Captain Smith had been in charge of several ships involved in incidents prior to this. In 1889, the Republic ran aground in New York harbour, the year after, the Coptic ran aground in Rio de Janeiro, and in 1970 the Adriatic ran aground, again in New York Harbour. In each case, the Captain was Captain Edward Smith. His Second Officer on the Titanic, Charles Lightoller said “It was an education to see him con his ship up through the intricate channels, entering New York harbour at full speed.” Captain Smith had a reputation for “not hanging around”. It was perhaps, therefore, no surprise that the command of the Titanic for its maiden voyage was given to Smith in an effort to wrest the Blue Riband away from the Cunard Line. The management priorities were evidently clear.

To ensure the management focus was clear, the White Star Line Chairman of the Board, J. Bruce Ismay, was on board for the maiden voyage. On the 14th April 1912, Captain Smith received at least 6 warnings concerning the ice field from other ships in the area, several of which had stopped due to the combined danger of ice and fog. Lookouts placed in the crow’s nest to help with early warnings of danger were not provided with binoculars. Titanic was speeding through the ice field at 22,5 knots (41,7 km/hr) rather than the recommended maximum 10 knots (18,5 km/hr) in such conditions.

While this was going on, the framed statement still hung on the wall in the chart room, “Safety outweighing every other consideration”.  The action of both the Captain, and the acceptance of the Captain’s actions by the Chairman, sent the message loud and clear what the management wanted. Do your actions support the visionary statements wheeled out at townhalls?  Do your actions correspond to the wise words and intentions in the branding documentation? How do you operationalise these visions? That is, what are you going to do about it?

Reflekt AS