Training truths, from the top down
“There’s an implicit assumption in many cases that training is the answer. I have always questioned that assumption,” says Simon Pressly, Group Director, Crew Management for V.Ships. It’s a pleasantly surprising statement from a professional of 25 years’ experience, with day to day responsibility for 26,000 crew.
At a time when regulation is growing and the need for improved competence is a mantra, this might go against the grain, but Pressly has no problem with that.
“We have to be very careful about what we mean by training. Are we training for knowledge or actually teaching people how to do things using the tools they have available?” he asks.
It’s not the first or last unconventional view he expresses but having seen V.Group Executive Director Bob Bishop take part in a Nor-Shipping seminar earlier in the month, Great Circle was prepared to be surprised.
The V.Ships philosophy might be expressed as ‘think different’, but is probably better described as ‘act different too’.
Though training is an important contributor to the company’s low incidence of lost time incidents and personal injuries, he says management philosophy and culture are equally big drivers of improvement.
That culture has seen an end to incentivising of crew on the basis of vessel performance, though this can still be done if the client requires it. Pressly says the practice tended to drive reporting underground, encouraging crew to only report good news and hide problems.
V.Ships is also winding up such ‘KPI bonus’ schemes for commercial reasons: in a tight labour market, seafarers are less interested in having a salary plus ‘potential bonus’ but in what can be guaranteed.
To promote a safety culture V.Ships takes an attitude to crew supply that both empowers and holds them responsible – just as it does for shore staff. This includes what Bishop had described as “shutting the crew and supers in a room and letting them swing the lantern”, seminars where clients, superintendents, crew and fleet teams can have an open discussion.
Such exchanges build relationships and encourage feedback, Pressly says, as well as reflecting the company’s fundamental approach to people management.
“The overriding philosophy is to continuously learn from our experiences and then feed that learning back to the seafarers in order to improve performance. When we do train people it’s on the basis of what has actually happened – this is what went wrong, what would you do differently?”
The learning from incidents is distributed regularly to the ships in the form of circulars, advisories and even a podcast which he says is “getting it from the horse’s mouth from the top, this is what we want. We want you to be safe. We want you to follow rules. We don’t want to have any environmental incidents. And stop the job if you feel that there’s a dangerous situation evolving”.
The proof he says is in the retention rates but it does require a top-down, management-driven approach.
“If we want to improve things, training the sea staff is part of it but also the communication to and from the shore is another part. The visits by the superintendents, the visits by the fleet managers are all part of improving performance. You don’t train, then send somebody away and then suddenly performance miraculously improves by itself.”
It also requires instilling a different approach to responsibilities than might have been used in the past. Instead of a demarcated approach of set roles and responsibilities, he says onboard ship there is a far greater focus on team performance and joint accountability.
“It’s an approach we are actively pushing out, across the organisation to make sure that everybody understands that they are accountable. I am accountable for the performance of 26,000 seafarers on board 800-odd ships. I’m not responsible for carrying out every action that they are required to do, but I am accountable for it.”
It’s for this reason that he feels so strongly about the role of training – and its separation from regulatory and certification requirements. The ship or crew manager should not be imparting new knowledge but instead trying to help people work better, whether as management or bridge teams. “Training alone will not change behaviour unless it’s reinforced by behaviour whether it’s from the ship or the shore.”
Challenges remain of course, but he thinks the issues are not always as simple as cultural differences. There is also a generational change in what might be termed natural respect for authority. The younger generation, he says hasn’t been brought up this way, almost regardless of their origin. “You have to persuade people and convince people and get people to want to do things. You can’t just tell them something and expect that that will be done.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the ship-shore relationship can be pretty toxic at times, with crew and fleet managers alike locked into antagonistic modes of behaviour. Pressly acknowledges the problem and points to style, content and tone of communication as key. “If it’s directed or dictatorial then you start getting people not wanting to work for you.”
In other cases the condition of the ship can be a problem, or there could be external pressures from charterers or owners – sometimes he says the management team itself will be communicating or imposing demands in such a way that encourages resentment.
The solution he says, is straightforward. After all, most people want to do a good job and few deliberately go onboard a ship to do a poor one.
“If people aren’t doing a good job you then ask yourself why. They’re qualified, they’re competent, why aren’t they doing a good job? Ship management is all about getting people onboard to be safe and efficient. If they don’t have the experience that we desire, then let’s support and encourage them to talk to us if they have an issue or a question rather than discourage them.”