Sinking the Vasa: A Message for Global Corporations

Vasa 1

The construction of the Vasa took almost two and a half years; her hull built of more than 1,000 oak trees.  She carried 64 bronze cannon, and was to sail with masts over 50 meters high. She was the pride of the Swedish Fleet.  King King Gustav II Adolph was certain she would not only be a tangible reminder of Swedish military power, but a message to other 17th century monarchs of the potential futility of assaulting the Swedish navy.   There may be some modern comparisons, albeit somewhat tenuous, to King Gustav II Adolph and his plans.

79 year old Joseph Sepp Blatter recently won the FIFA election and will head the organization for another four years.  He has crafted a corporate alliance to insure his power, and maintained his control in a manner reminiscent of a feudalism which predates King Gustav II Adolph.   This, in the face of criminal charges against some of his top lieutenants. This, in the face of serious threats to create a new Thirty Years War and break the hold of FIFA on world soccer competition. [DailyMail]

Blatter’s reaction to the possible constriction of his power? He’s a victim, however:

“Between 2010 and 2013, half of FIFA’s 24-strong executive committee was accused of some form of corruption, five were forced to resign, and one was banned for life. In 1999, Blatter reassured the world about his soon-to-be-disgraced cabinet: “I can’t speak about everyone’s sense of morality but, for the 24 members of a committee I have the honor to direct, I can say they have all taken a sort of ethical oath.” [Slate]

By his lights his latest troubles are the result of American and British sour grapes.   There’s another contemporary example of a global mogul who cries “victim” when confronted.

In 2013 JP Morgan tried to spin the tale that it was a “victim” of government interference with the financial markets and therefore could not be held liable for the egregious mortgage/financial results of its actions during the Financial Collapse of 2007-2008.  It was a nice try, but the arguments weren’t constructed of anything so solid as the oaks which went into the construction of the Vasa hull. [Dealbook]   The whining continued into 2015.

CEO Jamie Dimon complained in January 2015 that “banks were under assault!”  A person might think Dimon considered himself analogous to the 1626 Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fighting off King Gustav II Adolph to secure the city of Danzig (Gdansk)?  However, there’s more and it brings on another whine. “It’s those lazy investors!” [C&L]

“You might think that the chairman and CEO of a major bank that had just pleaded guilty to a federal felony charge and has paid out more than $20 billion in legal settlements in recent years would show a little humility.  But then you wouldn’t be reckoning with Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase. At an investment conference in New York this week, Dimon lashed out at institutional investors who voted against his pay package and his dual role as the firm’s chairman and chief executive, and otherwise rejected management’s wishes on shareholder resolutions at the annual meeting May 19.” [LATimes]

Dimon’s craft was one of the survivors of the 2007-2008 debacle, Dick Fuld’s Lehman Brothers operation was one of the first casualties, but wait! it wasn’t their fault.  They ignored the 12-1 debt ratio, coming in closer to something like 40-1.  All it took was faulty economic modeling, excessive real estate exposure, over reliance on ratings, and an utter failure to manage their repos. [Bloomberg] One more we find one of the titans of industry and finance whinging as though they aren’t responsible for the systems they set in place.  No more so than King Gustav II Adolph could be blamed for the wreck of the Vasa?

When the King heard the Danes were constructing a ship with two gun decks, he changed the orders and specified the Vasa was to be similarly constructed.  That the original specifications were for a single enclosed gun deck was not taken into serious consideration.  One useless stadium here, another there – no matter.  One purchase of a highly questionable financial enterprise here, another there, no matter? One disregard of the 12-1 rule, so what could go wrong?

Indeed, what could go wrong when keel modifications were not taken into consideration, when no one at the time really knew how to calculate a ship’s stability, stiffness, and sailing characteristics?  Did anyone know the “value” of a hybrid financial product based on the price of a batch of derivatives in 2005?

There was a “lurch test” conducted on the Vasa before her launch, and the instability and ballast problems were noted.  The test consisted of having 30 men run from side to side amidship, and after three of these runs the ship was “rocking so violently it was feared it would heel over.” [FacUPedu pdf] How many more FIFA executives need to be indicted before that organization heels over?

All these ships, physical, financial, and entertaining,  were supposed to sail effortlessly in calm waters of their own choosing.

Vasa 2

The Vasa began her maiden voyage from the Skeppsgarden Shipyard on August 10, 1628; all 1210 tonnes of her, with her 38 ft. beam, her 16 ft. draft, and her 172 ft. height.  Yes, she was indeed top heavy, the ‘lurch test had illustrated that to all who witnessed it.  Hundreds, if not thousands came to see the flagship of the fleet take her first voyage.  The spectacle was not what was intended.

After she sailed about 1300 meters a light wind gust caused her to heel over on her side, the gun ports were open (to allow a salutary salvo to be fired) and water poured in.  The beautifully decorated, heavily armed, ship sank only 390 ft. from shore in waters about 32 ft. deep.

From both historic and modern inquests we know why she sank – there were “Ten Lessons Learned.”

There were excessive schedule pressures.  The scheduling pressures were exacerbated by changing needs, and operational characteristics were modified during the construction process.  There was a lack of technical specifications, compounded by a lack of a documented project plan.  Is any of this beginning to sound familiar?

There was excessive innovation, for example, no one in Sweden at the time had ever constructed a ship with two enclosed gun decks.  Worse still, there were secondary innovations added to accommodate the initial innovations, even though no one knew the implications of the initial ones.  And, there was the inevitable “requirement creep,” during the 2 1/2 years of construction;  we’d recognize this as “mission creep.”

There were no contemporary scientific methods for “calculating the center of gravity, the stiffness, and the resulting stability relationships of the Vasa.” We’d also recognize the creation of “financial products” the value of which couldn’t be determined at the outset being used as the “ballast” for subsequent iterations and innovations.  And, then there were two more items on the fail-list which we are obviously still dealing with today.

They ignored the obvious. The stability test was a failure – but that quite evidently didn’t deter the launch.  The second item is “possible mendacity,” or, “the results of the stability test were known to some but were not communicated to others.”  [FacUPedu pdf]

Imagine: a modern corporate leader.  A modern global corporate leader so anxious to “win,” to prosper, that in the interest of innovation caution is blown to the winds?  Imagine: a modern corporate leader who is so determined to “succeed” that the lack of specificity, the dearth of calculations, and the inappropriateness of methodology is dismissed? And, imagine a global corporate leader who either ignores or is never informed by the sycophantic warning signs that all is not well?  And so the beautiful Vasa sank.  She is now a museum piece.

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