Conversations in Management: Curtis Ebbesmeyer

There is no yellow rubber ducky flotilla approaching your shores.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer

EbbesmeyerIt was a dark and stormy night during the winter of 1992 when a massive wave ripped 20 containers from the deck of a struggling freighter. Bursting as they struck the churning seas, the containers released 29,000 rubber ducks (as well as beavers, turtles and frogs) into the cold north Pacific. What happened next has become an epic tale of survival. We know this because Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been paying attention. Ebbesmeyer is an oceanographer. He’s made a career of studying the oceans’ currents to determine, “where they flow, how fast they flow, and how they interconnect.” Beginning in the early nineties, he started using the products swept from the decks of storm- tossed freighters to mark the currents. Since Maritime law requires ship captain’s to document where cargo goes overboard, he has precise data points and with ocean-current mapping software, is able to predict landfall. That’s when his band of volunteer beachcombers goes to work scouring the shores to track the trash. They always have something to show for their efforts because an alarming amount of material falls into the drink every year. Over the years, Ebbesmeyer has tracked 80,000 Nike shoes, five million Lego blocks, 34,000 hockey gloves, and of course, 29,000 plastic ducks. In the process he’s learned a lot about currents and even more about the longevity of plastics. Fifteen years after starting their swim, many of the toys are still brightly colored and pliable as well!

There are lots of implications to the voyage of the rubber ducks but two considerations are particularly important for leaders. The first is the danger of ignoring what you don’t see. Think of it as the out-of-sight-out-mind dilemma. The shipping industry loses about 10,000 containers overboard every year. Insurance pays the loss and everyone “moves on.” But that’s not the end of it. What doesn’t sink gets caught up in the currents along with other refuse. Before you know it, you’ve got a buoyant garbage dump twice the size of Texas floating in the Pacific. Since almost no one knows it’s there, not much is done about it. The same thing is happening where you work. Minor process inefficiencies, safety issues and employee problems are occurring just outside your line of sight. Because they aren’t major problems, they don’t grab your attention. It’s only when an initiative falters, someone gets hurt or an employee sues that you realize you’ve been out of touch. The other consideration is that everything’s connected. The duck that starts its journey with a 45,000 mile trek around the Pacific before migrating through the Bering Straits, traversing the arctic ice pack and washing ashore in Scotland shows us that a local environmental problem can have global implications. In the same way, problems at work rarely exist in isolation. A mechanical error in the shop might cause an accident that ultimately closes down a busy highway. One angry employee may destroy an entire office’s morale and end up decimating productivity.

Don’t ever forget that you know only a fraction of what’s going on. You have to make a real effort to be more fully involved. That means asking more questions, talking to more people and by wandering around. It’s also a good idea to consider the possible ramifications of a decision before you make it. You might be able to avoid some unhappy and unintended consequences if you first think about how the pieces of your organization fit together. Sure it takes some work, but it’s more rewarding than following the lead of the rubber duck and simply going with the flow!     —Ebert 

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