Keeping wooden sailing vessels afloat, as well as a company, takes caulking

At the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, five wooden ships are National Historic Landmarks and are the big attraction among the maritime items there.

And no wonder. Wooden ships are not only impressive, but are a marvel of man’s ingenuity. When you view the magnificent vessels, it’s probably the masts and sails (if it’s underway) that draw your attention initially.

Or maybe, if you are like me, you have found that your ancestors came to America on a ship like the one you are viewing. Your curiosity may get the better of you, and you find yourself wanting to see what conditions were like for the passengers.

But it’s what keeps the boat watertight that you should really be impressed with.

The caulking at the seams does the job. Long ago, shipbuilders found that if they took a caulking mallet and a chisel-like tool and drove cotton and oakum (hemp fiber soaked in pine tar) into the wedge-shaped seam between planks, it would seal out the water.

At least for awhile. As time went on, the caulking came loose and needed to be replaced.

More caulking put the ship back in shape.

A company is much the same. So is a person. Think of both as vessels prone to leaks. A person may need to have their entrepreneurial spirit refilled; perhaps a vacation or change of scenery is in order.

A company may need new blood or a new culture. If it is in serious trouble, it may call for a turnaround.

What senior company leaders have found is that caulking covers a wide range of solutions.

One situation, which may be the most common, is improvements based on many small changes rather than the significant changes that might arise from the R&D department with new products or procedures. Think sustainability procedures such as recycling waste or monitoring resources.

Some of those ideas, if they come from employees themselves, are less likely to be significantly different, and thus would be easier to implement. It also helps encourage workers to take ownership for their work, and can help reinforce teamwork, thereby improving employee motivation and morale. In short, employee engagement will increase.

As far as an investment, small improvements are not expected to be major capital investments than, say, major process changes such as retooling a production line.

Finally, when all employees continually seek ways to improve their performance, it will be the source, anyway you look at it, of the caulking your company just might need before a big leak in the hull occurs.

Be sure to read this month’s Uniquely Northern California about the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.