ITIL and the Boston Molassacre

That’s not an error in the title. I meant to write “Molassacre”. Anyone who lived in Boston is likely familiar with this tragic event.

The “Boston Molassacre” is a play on words describing an event that occurred on January 15th, 1919, an unseasonably hot day. In the North End of town (which is famous for really good Italian food), a huge molasses storage tank owned and operated by United Status Industrial Alcohol Company that contained 2,300,000 gallons of molasses suffered a catastrophic failure. Nearby citizens heard sounds like a machine gun being fired and felt the ground rumbling like an earthquake. The large container of molasses broke apart, and a wave of molasses between eight and fifteen feet high deluged the North End of Boston. General devastation ensued, citizens were knocked off of their feet, and numerous people and animals were drowned or crushed by the out of control wave of molasses. Some claim that on hot days parts of the North End still smell of molasses.

The container of molasses never really worked properly. It had several leaks that were camouflaged with brown paint. Local residents regularly gathered free molasses by holding buckets beneath the leaks. Later authorities found that the container, located in the middle of a residential area, was never properly tested before being put into service. Furthermore, the company that owned and operated the container immediately chose to not take accountability for the failure and blamed the event on “anarchists”.

How does this relate to ITIL? Although ITIL is most popular in organizations that provide IT services, the best practices are broadly applicable to all organizations that provide any services. The ITIL best practices, models, and approaches are available to all companies. Following these best practices can reduce typically significant and different risks. Sometimes these risks relate to matters of life and death.

Applying the lifecycle approach to this situation, some aspects of the Boston Molassacre can be clearly understood, and we can specifically identify aspects of ITIL best practices that would have helped address the risk. I could go on for pages about how specific best practices described by ITIL, had they been followed, could have averted this disaster.

Service Strategy

It’s easy to look back in time through a modern day lens and conclude that really poor choices were made. Positioning the 2,300,000 gallon molasses storage tank in a residential neighborhood would be very high risk now and was then, in that ultimately the organization incurred more costs through their choices than they would have had they chosen a different location for the storage tank. In this case, ninety years doesn’t change the existence of the risk.

Had the organization followed what we now consider best practices during its strategic decision making, it would have identified various constraints and external factors. Specifically an effective approach to strategy would have identified constraints associated with the location of the storage tank.

Service Design

The storage tank involved was very large with a reported capacity of over two million gallons. One of the processes described in service design is capacity management. In this case, the role of capacity management would have been to understand how environmental factors, such as temperature, affect 2,300,000 gallons of molasses, and does the architectural design account for this fluctuation? These types of risks are specifically addressed by the service design processes.

Service Transition

One of the major factors in the Boston Molassacre was that the storage tank wasn’t tested by filling it with water and judging how the storage tank performed under a full load. The storage tank should have been tested, as testing tends to identify faults which can be addressed before a service is put into live use. Proper testing, which is addressed in the service transition volume, would have identified shortcomings in the design of the storage tank that could have been corrected.

Service Operation

There should have been some facility in place to monitor the status of the storage tank. Any pending failure would have been precipitated by a number of events, which even in 1919 could have been detected with the various measuring and monitoring devices available at the time. If it was clear that the tank was about to fail, the company could have triggered an evacuation of the general area which would have saved many lives.

Continual Service Improvement

It was clear that there were issues with the storage facility. Local residents regularly filled buckets full of molasses from all of the leaks in the tank. Rather than repair any issues with the tank, the owners attempted to cover up its faults with brown paint. In effect, by not addressing these faults they allowed the time bomb to continue ticking, and ultimately time ran out on the clock.

The Boston Molassacre was a tragic event that we look back on today and have difficulty understanding how something so preventable could happen. It’s almost told as a quaint story these days, but what must be remembered is that failure to address easily identifiable risks sometimes results in disasters. In the case of the Boston Molassacre many people were injured and died as a result of failure to adequately identify and address risks. If the organization that operated the storage tank had behaved responsibly, the Boston Molassacre wouldn’t have happened.

Many IT organizations these days are faced with similar situations. Much of the work that we do in IT carries with it great risk. If we chose to not address that risk then we can endanger an organization’s ability to deliver services or even people’s lives. ITIL, applied properly, helps address various risks, and ultimately results in safer, lower-cost and higher-quality services.

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