The Stresa-Mottarone cable car crash is a lesson on culture


Fourteen people died on the 23rd of May 2021 when a cable car in Italy crashed to the ground. Describing this as an accident is too kind to the company that operates it. Before we go into why, let's recognize two things.


People do what their leaders motivate them to do.

This might NOT be what leaders would LIKE them to do.


This touches on some of the things I talked about last week. If you truly want something, then you are motivated to do it. Leaders who truly want their subordinates to do something (or not do something) are then responsible for motivating their subordinates to do it. So let's talk about what happened last month.


Cable cars are used to transport people over relatively short distances. They are particularly useful if these people need to up or down a steep incline or hill. Which is why we see them at ski slopes like the Stresa-Alpino-Mottarone Cable Car illustrated above (this is either the car involved in the crash or another car that operates on the same slope).


A cable car or aerial tramway involves two types of cables. There are the fixed 'track cables' that provide support to the 'truck' which is the set of wheels that roll along the cable and support the car. Then there is the 'haulage rope' which is looped around motorized pulleys at each end of the cable structure. So one cable supports. The other cable pulls.


You can see in the image that the track cable is much thicker. It needs to be.


When it comes to safety, there is an important element of that set of wheels that goes along the track cable that is called the 'truck.' There is always an emergency brake included in the design. If the cable car goes too fast, the emergency brake deploys and the truck clamps onto that really thick track cable. This prevents events like motorized pulley or haulage rope failure from creating an unsafe situation where the car moves faster than it is designed to.


So why is this a lesson in culture? Because the emergency systems were disabled.


A technician inserted some large 'steel staples' into the emergency brake to prevent it from deploying. Why? Because the emergency brake was annoyingly deploying when it wasn't supposed to. So instead of initiating costly repairs now (and shutting down the cable car) a technician decided to disable the emergency brake.


The problem with this story is that as of now, the blame is being laid entirely at the feet of that technician. Not his bosses or supervisors. We know that at least some of the blame needs to be owned by that technician. It is called an 'emergency' brake for a reason.


But the reality is that members of any team or organization are not 'independent agents.'


They are human beings operating within and part of a larger cultural framework where some behaviors are encouraged and others aren't. And this isn't simply all about what leaders say they want. It involves how much personal value leaders put on things. How much time and resources they invest in certain activities.


If a leader (for example) criticizes over-worked and under-resourced employees for not meeting ambitious milestones and objectives ... they may as well be declaring that things like safety, quality and reliability are not important.


There is still much to learn from this particular incident. But what we don't have to learn any more is that things like reliability, safety and quality are a symptom of culture. And culture is created by leaders. Whether they like it or not.


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