What Really Sunk the Titanic?

Tripp Babbitt

OK, 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 United States. 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 sightings?

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.

First published on the New Systems Thinking Blog.