Who’s Responsible for the Costa Concordia Disaster?

The Costa Concordia, a 3,700-passenger cruise liner, the flagship of the Costa Lines when it began service in July, 2006, lies on its side in shallow water off the coast of Isla Giglio. It ran aground late on the evening of Friday, January 13, when a 160-foot-long gash was opened up on the ship’s hull. Within minutes, the Costa Concordia began to list rapidly and panic rapidly ensued.

The Costa Concordia, lying on its side on the shore of Isla Giglio (NY Times)

Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise line operator and parent company of Costa Cruises, has many critical issues to deal with in the coming weeks and months, probably the least important of which are a dropping stock price and shipwrecks being just plain bad for business, especially at this time of year. Among the issues being raised:

  • Six people are known to have died and authorities aren’t sure how many passengers are still unaccounted for.
  • The Captain of the vessel, Francesco Schettino, is accused of deviating from a fixed, computerized course without authorization and without notifying superiors. Modern cruise vessels are capable of coordinating with global positioning satellites, just like it’s possible for drivers to get where they’re going by using a GPS device. But, just as you and I don’t have to follow the recommendations coming from our car-based GPS devices (“In 200 feet, turn right…turn right.”), a ship’s captain isn’t locked into the predetermined course. They, too, can do what they damned well please.
  • The Captain is also accused of abandoning the ship before passengers were rescued AND of refusing to return to the ship to aid the rescue effort. (Whatever happened to “women and children first”?) Because the captain felt it was OK to skip out on his passengers and crew, some of the crew – lacking guidance and cohesion – panicked. Naturally, so did most passengers.
  • There is the ugly possibility of environmental disaster. For now, half a million gallons (about 2,500 tons) of fuel are contained in the ship. How to remove that unused fuel safely and quickly and do it before leaks develop in the fuel tanks is a grave concern.
  • The Carnival CEO, Micky Arison, is staying in the cruise line’s Miami HQ and keeping a low profile. At a time like this, top management shouldn’t be hiding from the press and public. Arison may want to ask the former CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, how well that tactic worked for him.

What’s done can’t be undone, obviously, but we can take the lessons of this disaster and apply them to the remainder of the Costa fleet and to other cruise lines to limit the likelihood that such an event happens again. First, cruise lines must take corrective action with respect to their policies.

Policy is, as I’ve said before, too often developed after the damage has been done. Someone acts in a questionable manner and as long as nothing bad happens (i.e., they’re not caught), they keep doing it. Only when those actions have a negative effect on the company is policy (in effect, “don’t do this”) written. Companies should be doing more to develop and implement policies that promote acceptable, even beneficial, behavior.

Even when a company has policies in place, it’s far too common for those policies not to be communicated or enforced. Top management has a responsibility to communicate policy effectively to all company employees and to be sure everyone understands the policy and agrees to uphold it. In addition, top management must review company policies, on a regular basis and when circumstances warrant it, to ensure their continued applicability. Companies also have to enforce their policies (which, it appears, Costa Cruises hasn’t been doing) or stop acting surprised when the policies are continually violated with impunity.

Second, the cruise line business must be better regulated and enforcement bodies must be given the authority and resources needed to ensure compliance with regulations. “Better regulation” doesn’t necessarily mean more, new regulations – compliance with and enforcement of existing regulations may be the answer. Where safety is of the utmost concern (shouldn’t it always be?), oversight and enforcement cannot be lax. (It came as a surprise to me that ship’s captains aren’t required to file a cruise
plan, as airplane pilots are required to file flight plans. Nor are ships tracked in a manner similar to air traffic controllers and computers tracking airplanes while in flight.)

Third – and most important – cruise lines can and must take preventive action quickly and decisively with regard to ships and personnel. Examples include:

  • Improved training;
  • Better hiring policies and procedures;
  • Increased foolproofing of vessels (“poke-yoke”); and
  • Enforcement of policies, not just within the cruise line but within national and international governing and oversight bodies.

No one person is entirely responsible, or to blame, for the myriad failures that plagued the Costa Concordia. It was a collection of failures, systemic and localized, that led to last Friday’s disaster. That fact, however, does not absolve anyone involved of their duties. Time for everyone – especially those at the top – to gather their courage and step up or be dragged out of the shadows.



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Posted in Policy development, Process improvement, Quality improvement

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