Engineering Titanic: Lessons Learned One-Hundred Years On

Titanic's Sinking by Willy Stöwer (1864-1931)

When IT leaders gather for his lectures expecting PowerPoint presentations rich with organizational trees and multicolored bar graphs, consultant Mark Kozak-Holland instead projects the image of a black ship’s prow sailing toward them out of dark and distant history.

It’s a symbol that seems as unlikely for this era and this audience as it is notoriously well-known. Yet it’s surprisingly replete with modern-day lessons for project managers and engineers:

The sinking, 100 years ago this April, of Titanic.

“We dismiss case studies from the past because we think it’s different technologies,” says Kozak-Holland, who has worked for Compaq, HP, and IBM, and is the author of Avoiding Project Disaster: Titanic Lessons for IT Projects. “But if you want people to really walk away having learned something, you have to use strong stories, and this is one of the best in terms of helping businesses and organizations understand how projects can get out of control.”

The Titanic story is a teaching tool not just for IT project leaders. For engineers, it’s an example of the innovations possible in marine technology, but it’s also a lesson in human error, something that we see over and over again in such disasters as the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, the BP oil-well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and the grounding of the  Costa Concordia cruise ship.

“There are core kinds of issues that are still there—like the pressure to launch, the pressure to bring in the well in time, the pressure to get up close to shore—that makes you cut corners,” says James Battles, a social science analyst who studies patient safety at the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and also uses the Titanic saga as a case study. “In that respect, have we learned anything? No.”

It was human error which set Titanic on a disastrous path that would result in the deaths of 1,500 passengers and crew. But the architecture and engineering of the ship itself was pioneering, and the cutting-edge technology is still in use today.

Titanic‘s watertight compartments, for example. A double bottom, which has since become the double hull that’s standard in most types of oil tankers. Adjustable-pitch propellers that allowed for changes in the angle of the blade. Ingenious davits that could accommodate twice the required number of lifeboats. And the very concept of redundant systems, with boilers clustered in separate compartments that allowed the ship to operate if some compartments flooded.

“These were all pretty revolutionary for their time, and they’re still used today,” says Brandon Michael Taravella, assistant professor of naval architecture and marine engineering at the University of New Orleans, who uses the Titanic saga in a class he teaches. “There are all kinds of good things that come out of bad situations.”

But the idea of extra lifeboats on Titanic were rejected by the White Star Line out of fear they’d crowd the Promenade deck. The watertight compartments rose only as high as E deck and spilled over, one into the next, within three hours (six of the 16 watertight compartments on Titanic were flooded). And a tight schedule meant no time for a shakedown cruise, which may be why the lookout on the fateful night didn’t know where the binoculars were kept.

“Everything that caused the loss of the Titanic was in place before [it] even hit the iceberg,” Battles says. “It’s such a beautiful case study in that sense. I use it constantly as a teaching metaphor on this notion of latent human error.”

That’s how Kozak-Holland uses the story of Titanic, too. Poor management, he says, forced major compromises to be made at every stage of the ship’s short life. “The analogy is close to disastrous projects I’ve seen within the IT world. You have to make sure the governance is in place so that there’s proper demarcation of roles, and people [don’t] step over those lines.”

With Titanic, he says, “The problems really started on Day One.” The engineers, who could have raised red flags, were largely silent. And the ship sailed off into its field of icebergs with implicit instructions to beat its scheduled arrival time.

“You can see incredibly similar parallels to today,” Kozak-Holland says. “The Costa Concordia is frighteningly similar in so many ways. There was this sort of completely arrogant approach. It leaves me with shivers because the comparisons are so similar to Titanic.

Battles sees this, too. “We’ve made the captain [of Costa Concordia] into the villain of that story” he says. “But was he encouraged to do take risky behavior by the line, just as [Titanic Captain Edward] Smith was pushed to break the speed records?”

And that, Kozak-Holland says, “is why this is such a popular analogy, and a powerful one: What it comes down to is, we haven’t learned.”

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One thought on “Engineering Titanic: Lessons Learned One-Hundred Years On”

  1. Tim Perry says:

    So just how do you balance the desire to break conventions and push boundaries, against to wish to ‘play safe’? The Apollo project would never happen today, as the most basic risk assessment would say it was a bonkers thing to do. Orville and Wilbur did lots of testing, but eventually one of them had to climb on board and see what would happen.

    I am so glad there are still people around prepared to push boundaries, such as Richard Noble and the Bloodhound SSC team, or Burt Rutan and the White Knight.

    Are they going to provide the Titanic stories for the 21st Century? I sincerely doubt it, but unless they do their ‘thing’ we will never know. And humankind will be the poorer if they don’t have a go at pushing those boundaries. The alternative is all of us still living in caves.

    Tim Perry

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