Top Down—Top Heavy

Does your company’s culture resemble Adolphus’ court? Or can you, when necessary, tell the king that he’s not wearing any clothes or say, “hey, those are way too many guns.”

I recently returned from a press tour with Sandvik Coromant in Sweden. It was my second time to this beautiful country—happily neither visit in winter. We arrived in Stockholm early on a Saturday and spent Sunday there as well before busing north to the company headquarters in Sandviken. (see Improved Indexable Insert Stability)

One of the highlights of Stockholm is to visit the recovered and restored 17th century ship, the Vasa. She is housed in her own building/museum in the heart of the city—an easy walk from our hotel.

I find her story compelling because it is emblematic of a collision between engineering and ego, which, unfortunately, is not exclusive to the 17th century. The date is August 10, 1628. Sweden, under the rule of King Gustavus Adolphus, is embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War and needs a new powerful galleon for the dual mission of reflecting glory for the king and joining the Baltic fleet in the fight.

It’s the first part of the mission, reflecting glory for the king, which rendered the second part of the mission moot. Less than 1,000 yards into her maiden voyage, a small gust of wind caused the ship to list to port, and the open lower gun ports allowed the ship to fill with water and quickly sink in Stockholm Harbor. The ship was fatally top heavy.

The exact reasons for the capsizing are still in debate, but consensus points to interference by the king, who demanded that an extra row of guns be added to the already-under-construction ship. It was the weight and location of these guns (high on the hull) that destabilized the ship. Adding ballast was not an option because the lower gun ports were too close to the water line. Despite of the fact that the Vasa failed her initial floating test after coming off the ways, the king ordered that she put to sea anyway. Therefore, she was doomed from the start because nobody says “no” to the king.

As one of our guides succinctly said, “The Vasa was the pride of the Swedish Navy for three minutes.”

Although an inquiry was ordered, no one, including the captain and shipwright, was held culpable. The bottom line is the ship and 25 hands were lost because the king dictated his will over the engineering knowledge of his people. They were not allowed to tell him that the ship would founder. They knew it, but because of the times, they simply had to allow the worst to happen.

Of course that was then—the age of kings. I like to think that in the 400 years since the Vasa sank, ego-driven bad decisions are less likely to occur today in our enlightened world.

We have surely learned that top-down communication is far less productive than dialogue. Manufacturers today fully understand that there is knowledge throughout the company on all levels, and tapping that knowledge is a value-add for the operation. I know we all understand that there is no “I” in team.

All this begs the question: Does your company’s culture resemble Adolphus’ court? Or can you, when necessary, tell the king that he’s not wearing any clothes or say, “hey, those are way too many guns.”