Overcoming resistance to change: can shipping programme crew for success?
‘Why can’t shipping be more like aviation?’ It’s a refrain commonly heard at conferences and forums around the world. The answer is straightforward. Different cargoes, different trading patterns, a high degree of fragmentation, a preference for privacy and debt finance; shipping could hardly resemble aviation less.
What the questioners really mean is why officers must continue to familiarise themselves with dozens of bridge layouts and types of navigation equipment, while airlines enjoy the comparative simplicity of two major manufacturers’ systems.
Again the answer is simple: the impact of market forces and shipping’s traditional reliance on multiple suppliers, with hundreds of companies serving dozens of shipyards.
Owners are also notoriously resistant to change. Indeed, they sometimes bring problems on themselves. A recent industry event heard of an owner building a series of ships in Asia which flew its masters to the yard so they could specify exactly how they wanted the bridge layout of ‘their’ ships.
But in his paper to the recent Intermanager seminar held during London International Shipping Week, safety consultant Tim Crowch warned that by ignoring the benefits of standardisation – while simultaneously cutting training budgets – owners were ‘programming officers to fail’.
The changing nature of shipboard technology means that a ‘business as usual’ attitude cannot deliver a safe and sustainable industry. A pure focus on cost-cutting also ignores that fact that risk management will not just promote safety culture, but also drive efficiency and therefore profitability.
Making shipping safer, Capt Crowch suggested, starts with the safety management system and an appreciation of the need to build hard and soft defences against errors, including both organisational and human factors. In fact, some sectors of the industry are doing the opposite.
“At a time of poor earnings, when there has been no reduction in casualty risk, one of the first responses has been to prune the training budget. With no counter measures in place that is a high risk strategy. Quality training is one most powerful soft defences, but training budgets continue to be cut and risk exposure grows. Risk shows no respect for the financial cycle.”
The problem is exacerbated by a lack of standardisation, a situation in which – with only a few exceptions – the marine industry has allowed every vessel to be a prototype, he said. Failure of specification, pressure exerted by manufacturers, proliferation of suppliers; all have contributed to a chronic lack of standardisation.
“Calls for standardisation in design either fall on deaf ears or are proposed too late,” he continued. “Combine cuts in training budget with a conscious lack of standardisation and you are programming your crews to fail.”
This lack of consistency has created a work environment where it is impossible for crew to perform at their best and where they ‘inevitably become active failures’ he said. The solution, inevitably, lay in a comparison with the airline industry, whose safety rationale is built around standardisation.
Its clients having tired of paying $150,000 to re-train a single pilot from one flightdeck to another on a course lasting 10 to 12 weeks, aircraft manufacturer Airbus moved to standardise its equipment, establish new standards and in the process cut training times.
Standardising systems and equipment means short haul pilots can work across aircraft types and be cross-qualified to fly long haul aircraft in less time, while savings are derived from simplifying maintenance routines.
“If shipping wishes to optimise its investment in training then something has to give, namely an embrace of standardisation,” said Capt Crowch. “An aircraft flightdeck is a complex place but the modern bridge is no longer far behind. In fact, technology is racing ahead of the industry, while the over-riding training philosophy unfortunately still belongs in the middle of last century.”
This is particularly true in the case of bridge navigation systems, he said. Users must be alert to the risks of clinging to old methods in a fast-changing age. Becoming familiar with a new bridge is one challenge but for a young junior in a high stress situation, forgetting the previous one might prove just as difficult.
“For evidence, we revert to the familiar, consider how often you have switched on the windscreen wipers in a rental car, when you actually want to make a turn,” he quipped.
“Transitioning from paper charts to a paperless bridge is a serious change and it is now unstoppable. However, no-one agreed any industry norms before the ECDIS era opened. This is an example of programming an officer to fail. Switch design, symbology, colour coding and menu content are all areas which need to be considered again,” he added.
Similar issues apply in the engine control room and at other vessel workstations too. Capt Crowch suggested that to achieve any level of standardisation and simplicity, there is a need for customers to become more closely aligned to suppliers and it is time for manufacturers to listen and respond to the needs of clients.
“I’m aware there are different fleets and specialist tasks, but I’m not aware of any one-ship fleets. What must be recognised is that safety management is risk management. Risk management is cost control and cost control leads to efficiency which leads to productivity. Safety management is a profit centre not a cost centre. It is an investment and insurance in wealth protection.”
That is the sort of equation that shipowners should recognise – though he admitted the cross-industry nature of this potential change makes it a massive task. Asked to comment on the lack of uptake for ECDIS S-Mode he said his aviation experience was that arguing for good basic ergonomics ‘means people treat you like a mosquito and try and swat you so there was a need for scale.
“There is safety in numbers and it is time to build a coalition. You will never get through to shipping without critical mass and it is time we all came together. As individuals you do not have a chance. Resistance to change should never be underestimated.”