January 15, 2008


In two and a half decades of working for foreign Ownership and Management firms, I have often been struck by how we all manage the pulls and pushes of contractual employment.

One casualty in all this is the level of commitment on display by the Master, officers and crew on many ships. I believe commitment levels are not too high to begin with, and show considerable decay as contracts progress; there is a “winding up” period, followed by a plateau, the graph slowly decaying till about a month or so before the end of a contract, where many are just looking at the date or port of relief and not a day beyond that.

The obvious fallout of this low commitment and short-sightedness by all the parties concerned is a given; what is hidden, however, is the cost of this low commitment, which manifests itself in many small but cumulative ways. The higher costs of a lackadaisical attitude of officers and crew- in stores, spares, time and fuel savings, cargo claims and maintenance, to name a few – are difficult to compute, although the true numbers would perhaps startle all of us.

This is compounded by the fact that Masters and Chief Engineers too are guilty of this same attitude; their primary concern, often, is just surviving the contract without any major incidents or problems. There is also not enough time; running the ship and managing the deluge of paper does not leave much time or energy for tweaking the system. That, too, in setups which often do not reward or even seriously recognise any such effort.
The fact is, though, that this does not require a great amount of time or even effort; it does, however, require a culture of professionalism and efficiency throughout a ship. This is, sadly, infrequently seen. Also, work culture comes from within and cannot be mandated by anybody.

Managers are hamstrung by the constraints of distance, crew rotations and the associated discontinuity, and time; Superintendents are sometimes used by many firms as “Super Chief Engineers” for a few ships. Their experience, in addition, does not lend itself to a decent oversight on the Master, and, in fact, their oversight is usually largely over maintenance and not promoting other general efficiencies. They, too, are motivated by budgets and other constraints of limited time and energy. They, too, are in the same system.
The complexities of administration of the ship does not lend itself to a solution. In fact, it detracts from it.The notion that a 10% annual savings in spares and stores alone is easily possible, in my view, has been met with scepticism and lethargy in the past, because to do that one would have to overhaul part of the administrative system, which has often become too large and cumbersome. The system, built to administer and support, has taken a life of its own. The tail is wagging the dog.

But the system, such as it is, is secondary. I would argue that motivation, both at sea and ashore, is the real issue here. Words like co-operation are used, where, instead, I would use words like professionalism- for a Master does his job when he promotes an efficient culture, nothing more and nothing less.

The fact is also that the people on board are the best people to promote any culture by the sole fact that they are there, on the spot, twenty four hours a day, and months on end.

So, partly to make the discussion manageable, I have often asked myself, what would I do if I owned a ship? Just one ship, though the same argument below could be extended to a fleet. How would I manage this challenge?

Well, the following are some of the measures I would take. (By the way, this is not an extensive list, more an indicative one.)

At the outset, at each stage of the following exercise I would do an effective cost-benefit analysis, crunch the numbers, and keep an eagle eye on the bottom line. This proposed system will not work if profitability is seriously and adversely impacted. Increased profitability- which is one goal- is a complex matter; trade offs must be workable.

First, I would take the pool of officers, specially Senior officers, and also senior ratings (the Bosun, Fitter) and see if I could co-opt them into being attached to the same ship, everytime. Offer as many as possible equal time on and off, offer much shorter contracts if the run of the ship allows this without blowing my crewing budget too much.
Tweaking this will be neccessary, different employees have different requirements. But managing these requirements is an essential function of HRD, and I would have taken the first step towards making HRD an essential part of my organisation. Earlier I probably had ticketing and visas, and called it HRD.

I would promise and pay bonuses annually to crew depending on factors such as Safety, Efficiency, higher profitability. I may even provide stock options to all crew.

I would give the ship a high leeway in ordering spares and stores; the budget would effectively be placed on board. The system would be completely transparent, a rating would be encouraged to realise what a spare costs; maintaining it well is therefore cost effective and, in this system, also adds to the crewmembers bottomline.

I would have numbers on profitability of the ship available on board. A quarterly P/L statement, so to speak.

This would increase paperwork to an extent. So, to counter that, I would put in place an ISM system which would be lean and effective. No duplication, no unneccessary paperwork, no dumping on board of new checklists, manuals and forms without an overhaul of existing ones. I would consider a computer based system which would generate checklists, and where data would have to be entered only once. I would effectively stop half the ship running around with paper between ports, a common sight these days in hectic runs with short port stays and short sailings.

I would place an Administrative Clerk on board, effectively outsourcing payroll and general administration, port papers, administrative data and the Chief Steward’s function away from the Navigators and the Engineers .. and I would give him a decent salary and a career path, absorbing him into the office after a few years at a later known date and time, subject to performance. He too, would be entitled to annual bonuses. He, too, would be co-opted- a resource, like the rest of the sailing staff.

Any financial irregularity would be met with instant dismissal, including any improprieties on the part of the Master.
I would demand the highest professional standards, both at sea and ashore.
Evaluation systems would be well thought of; considerable weightage would be given to safety of operations, professionalism, level of statutory and other compliance, economically astute decisions and commitment, encouraging feedback all the while.

The Engineering Superintendent ashore would have essentially a support and oversight function. How is the ship performing? Are they cutting corners to try to save money? Are they meeting Statutory and Company requirements and preventive maintenance standards to a high degree? What assistance do they need from ashore? What is going wrong?
The Superintendent would have more time to do this, because some of his earlier operational part of the job has been passed on to the ship, where it rightfully belongs.

I would have oversight on the Master. Between the Superintendent and the Owner/Manager, that should be manageable. In the present system this is imperfectly done, since it is left, by and large, to an Engineering Superintendent.
And I would be tough, but fair.

I can hear some saying, it will not work. Or it will not work in an Indian context. Or it will not work with mixed crews. Or it has been tried and see what happened. Or it will not work for a million other reasons.

I will only suggest this; One, look around. Many industries view administration and management as a support function, not a control one. Many industries have put in place transparent systems which attempt to make employees stakeholders in the business in one way or another- that is the way the world is going. Look at the IT industry, with similar high levels of attrition, a young workforce wtih many in non-permanent jobs; many there are effectively contract employees, or, to use an euphemism, ‘consultants’. Are they that dissimilar from us?

And Two, by trying out such a system, what have we got to lose except our chains?

First published in http://www.marexbulletin.com/

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