July 22, 2010

Navel affair.

Many years ago, we had a main engine breakdown on a Ro-Ro ship in the middle of the Indian Ocean when the Technical Superintendent was on board on a routine inspection trip. As can be expected, his presence resulted in an extra flurry of activity down below. (Superintendents hate to be on the spot; this puts pressure on them to solve the problem quickly. They much prefer giving directions from the office; floating staff prefer that too, but for different reasons). In any event, the engineers were running ragged trying to find the problem. Eighteen hours passed without any progress.

In the evening, in the midst of all this, I found Johnny the chief engineer out for a walk on the flush main deck with a can of beer in his hand. “How is it going, Chief?” I asked him.

He shook his head in disgust. “I came up to try to figure things out,” he told me. “Everybody, including the Super, is running around in the engine room with their backsides on fire; nobody is doing the thinking.”

I see the same drawback in many a shipmanagement setup today; the entire organisation, including the head, is often so consumed with a focus on immediate operations and administration that there is nobody taking a step back and seeing the bigger picture or trying to find or fix generic problems. I think this critical need of any organisation remains largely unfulfilled- or insufficiently addressed- in many maritime operations businesses.

In an ideal world, this function- one I will call the ‘contemplating navel’ one, belongs to the head of the organisation. He is akin to the Captain who stands out on the bridge wing during ship handling; he knows and directs the movement of the ship, but he is distanced a bit from the practical details of taking positions, checking equipment or other logistics that lie with the officer of the watch. Importantly, he is away from the noise, both physical and mental, that normal operations generate. He can therefore focus and do a better, safer job.

So can, similarly, the head of any organisation. Generals must be remote to the battlefield, at least mentally, if a physical separation is not possible. The battlefield is for soldiers.

The head of a shipmanagement organisation should be spending much time just talking to people: employees in the office (not just senior managers), sailing staff (not just Masters and Chief Engineers) leaving to join ship or returning for debriefing, potential business partners and others. He should be giving himself the space to initiate improvements both ashore and afloat. He should be using his mental bandwidth to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the setup, examining opportunities and threats and finding practical ways of dealing with these. This is a full time job. The clutter of daily emails and telexes and the cacophony of routine operations should be as distant from his mind as possible, because the ‘contemplating navel’ function is one that only he can properly fill. Everything else can be delegated.

To be fair, many organisational structures start well on paper, with this function addressed- even if obliquely. However, they seem to quickly degenerate into what I call organisational chaos, with everybody sucked into routine operations. This is partly because of the helter-skelter nature of the shipping business and partly because of other factors, including the shortage of competent and committed people ashore and the inability (or hesitation) of the CEO to delegate responsibility down the line. A good Chief does all of these- he realises when an organisation is being consumed by routine, he delegates and then steps aside. He also hires appropriate people at the outset to give the setup more bandwidth to deal with the inevitable surprises; as we know, the shipping trade has more than its fair share of those.

I am convinced that it is partly because of this lack of available bandwidth that the chiefs in shipping are unable to find innovative ways of addressing decades old- and recurring- issues in the business. Besides the will, they simply do not have the time to put their feet up on the desk, introspect, contemplate or strategise. My lament is the same as Johnny the Chief Engineer’s: nobody is doing the thinking.

I think shipping organisations are also impacted by the fact that many of its seniormost managers ashore are ex-Captains or ex-Chief Engineers, and are used to being hands-on at sea. That may well be a requirement on a ship (though, as said, I would recommend a certain distance be maintained there as well), but a larger spread out organisation ashore surely requires a different mindset, and the sooner that is realised the better. (It is not my contention that all shipmanagers ashore carry this baggage ashore, but I believe a significant majority does.)

All I am recommending, with some experience of my own heading a decent sized setup in a different industry, is that on a typical Monday morning- when emails, phones and faxes from across the world throw up a million problems and minutiae threatens to consume the next twenty four hours of the office nonstop - is that the head of the organisation should be considering which potential business associate should be taken out to an extended lunch.