Error Proofing Against Pirates


    Like many, I closely followed the recent pirate seizure of the Maersk ship with the American crew and was happy when the captain was free by the U.S. Navy. I wondered how a tiny boat with four pirates could board and overtake a huge ocean container ship.

    Then I read about how the pirates threw grappling hooks and climbed ropes to board the ship. Such a low tech method for causing so much chaos (and having guns help too). But guns are worthless if the pirates can't board the ship.

    Many pundits have called for arming the commercial vessels. I thought, Lean Thinkers, would ponder “how do we prevent the pirates from getting on board in the first place?”

    Then I stumbled across this article that stated, from a U.S. military commander:

    He said that in addition to armed guards, companies could deploy more passive measures, like barbed wire around the lower parts of the ship.

    Barbed wire? Brilliant! Keep them from gaining access to the boat. That might not fix the ultimate root cause, but it sounds better than getting into shootouts with armed pirates each time.

    And, best of all, the barbed wire has worked:

    ‘Just last week, two vessels were unsuccessfully attacked because the ship had put barbed wire around the ship on the closest avenues of approach,' he said.

    And the BBC reported:

    An Israeli cargo ship came under fire from pirates en route to Kenya on Saturday but was apparently saved by coils of barbed wire hung around the hull to repel boarders.

    What a cheap, effective solution. Why doesn't every ship employ this method immediately?

    This is “everyday lean” only off the coast of Somalia, apparently. Will the pirates come up with a workaround for the barbed wire??

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    Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


    1. The barbed wire sounds like an effective physical deterrent, but that’s not enough. Knowing that your enemy (the vessel’s crew) is armed and could possibly kill you is the ultimate psychological deterrent. The pirates will eventually learn how to bypass the barbed wire…how do they overcome the thought that they will be shot if they illegally board a shipping vessel?

    2. Not to nitpick, but that’s not error proofing. Error proofing is coming up with a device or mechanism that prevents someone from committing an error that they did not intend to commit. This example is crime prevention, against intended harm. Everyday lean examples are great but if you want people to learn from them you should use the terms properly.

    3. Anonymous – I understand the nitpicking. It’s not a classical example of error proofing, I realize.

      If you view it from the perspective of the seamen maybe, a “defect” would be pirates getting on board.

      Barbed wire is a physical device, relatively inexpensive.

      The alternative is constant inspection or reactive gun battles.

      I’d argue that the barbed wire is more in keeping with a general lean thought process — being proactive, anticipating what could go wrong, and using creativity over a high-tech expensive solution.

      I disagree that I totally misused the term “error proofing.”

      What do others think?

    4. The pirates get on the ship because the crew inadvertently misses the fact that the pirates have thrown/shot grappling hooks over the edge of the boat. If the crew caught them at this point, they could cut the ropes, and no one will board the ship. I think this is error-proofing, because it makes it less likely for the inadvertent error of not cutting the ropes to occur, by eliminating the need. What better way to error-proof then to eliminate the need for the action?

    5. Bruce Schneier in his book Beyond Fear talks about the level of defense measures vs. motivation in attacker. His point is that a "Brinks Security Sign" in your yard is often all that is required to deter burglars. If that is indeed the case, installing an actual alarm is a waste of resources. Similarly, barbed wire or a "This ship protected by Smith & Wesson" sign may be all that is required to prevent boarding attempts and would make arming and training the crew a waste (or even unsafe).

      Another reason to not go straight to arming the crew is that security tends to be a cat and mouse game. You put a solution in place and the attacker goes one better and breaches the security. Elevating to armed crews may provoke more violent attacks from the pirates.

      My initial reaction was to arm the crew or armed supply security, but if a lesser solution is effective, it should be considered/tested.

    6. Brandon – I’d rather look for a way to prevent the grappling hooks from grabbing the edge of the ship or a way to prevent pirates from climbing up.

      Detecting the ropes and hooks sounds like a form of inspection to me, which would require a lot of labor time and vigilance or high-tech detection sensors that might be expensive.


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