Monday, 30 March 2009

Improving performance isn't always easy

There are things we take for granted that might never have happened without a champion: someone who cared enough to make something change. All of us know in our day to day work change is far from easy – particularly when there are vested interests to be considered.

One champion for change was the 19th Century politician Samuel Plimsoll. His interest was in shipping, and in particular safety. He researched, wrote and campaigned to make marine safety a priority. He even got himself elected to the House of Commons in order to become more effective in his campaign.

His most lasting legacy is something called the Plimsoll line – a line painted on the side of a ship to show the point to which it can be safely loaded. It graphically shows the maximum weight a ship can carry. If the ship is overloaded, the line disappears below the water line and the ship owners were clearly seen to be compromising safety. Simple, effective, graphical – and thanks to Samuel Plimsoll from 1877 onwards it was also the law.

It is difficult to estimate how many people’s lives have been saved as a result of Mr Plimsoll’s belief in his work. Despite opposition from greedy ship owners who cared more for profit than they did for lives, Plimsoll succeeded in passing a law that improved safety and the reputation of the shipping trade. An elegant and effective example of data-visualization.


  1. This is a super example of data visualisation.

    I completely agree that there are vested interests to overcome to make change happen and I have been on both sides of the argument when I used basic data visualisation to question the reason for change and also to make changing an obvious choice to take.

    The point is that people in business can use data visualisation to provide both logical and emotional reasons to make something happen or not and to strenghten their case.

    But often people only offer an emotional reason for change but don't support it in ways which the people they are trying to influence cannot grasp because they can't see it.

  2. Will - I so agree. I guess the reason is that it's quite difficult to come up with a great way to visualise data for any particular issue. But with the right graphical representation, the rest becomes so much easier. Maybe we are a little spoilt these days with PowerPoint and Excel charts - and we don't work quite as hard?

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