March 10, 2011

Crew management, for adults only

Much more effective than meetings with checklists and management manuals or diktats disgorged by senior officers or management ashore, I have found aboard vessels, is an approach that is quite the opposite. I believe that a management style that invites crew input into the decision making process is far more efficient and safe, and makes for a ship that is happier- and therefore more productive.

Unfortunately, most organised- and optimistically called- shipmanagement companies do not prescribe to this culture. In fact, much of their alleged management, partly due to suffocating regulations that are sometimes proven useless (case in point, the ISPS code) but also for other reasons to do with clueless and lousy HRD practices, seems to consist of playing the mommy-knows-best game. Discipline to them means that crews should follow archaic or harsh rules made by people of apparently seriously questionable intelligence.

A disaster attributed to two over-the-alcohol-limit officers? Ban alcohol on ships --forever and at any time- across the world! (Actually, not really, I have seen European officers excluded by European companies here). I daresay that there has been far greater tragedy- human, financial or environmental- wrought about by collective drunk driving across the world. By the same reasoning, no landlubber should be allowed even a sip of alcohol. Ever. Anywhere in the world. At anytime.

In one very well-known management company I sailed with briefly that many (mistakenly) believe is reputed, barbecues were banned. Apparently some minor fire had broken out on some ship at sometime- maybe a pork sausage had spontaneously combusted; nobody really knew. Anyway, the crew managers- who seemed to think that head masterly demeanour from a bunch of glorified clerks was critical to the running of ships- declared an across-the-fleet BBQ ban. Crews can fire up the boiler safely, but those kids can’t be trusted to fire up a barbecue. Ships will sink if we don’t lay down the law! That is really why we are sitting in this office!

Another company- also well known- used to ask their agents to put up joining officers and crew in ‘inexpensive’ (read cheap, substandard) hotels, and to give them vouchers at mealtimes. No a-la-carte or buffet for you children! You will overeat! I pointed out once with thinly disguised disgust, during a briefing meeting, that I had just come from such a hotel where I had to give them a meal voucher when all I wanted was a cup of coffee, having been recently fed two meals over a five hour flight. I told them they could have saved a buffet full of money if I had been allowed to order a coffee instead. The body shoppers didn’t find it funny; had my disgust been bigger than my sense of humour I would have quit that setup right then and there.

It would help in many ways, I think, if the industry started treating its mariners like the adults that they are. The industry needs to consider seriously the fact that its immature attitude- and the culture it propagates-is a major irritant to seamen who are spending months at a time in a pressure cooker atmosphere that is aggravated by such stupidity.

Back to ships, where the ISM code and other regulations have done irreparable harm, in my view, to smooth operations aboard vessels in many ways. They reduce work flexibility and give too much importance to paperwork and filing, for one. Then, the juvenile treatment of seamen- in many ways- filters from the manuals, checklists, non-compliance reports, management emails and the entire ISM hoo-ha aboard ships today to senior officers, and it filters from them down the ranks. These officers can easily propagate a suffocating mommy-knows-best culture throughout the ship if they are careless, to an extent that spontaneity, flexibility, willingness to work and even a seaman’s confidence to find, independently, simple solutions to everyday problems is hit. Overregulation, the mandating of procedures for the simplest things and the ridiculous desire to control everything crew do -thousands of miles away- have a tendency to do that.

I have tried to counter this suffocation at sea by what I call a ‘management by walking around’ style. I try to talk to crew as people, not like children or cogs in some out-of-control machine. Many of them have pretty good ideas about how things could be more efficient or safer. Any crew’s collective experience totals in decades- and is often significantly greater, and usually more apposite- than the collective sea experience of the organisation ashore.

Obviously a consultative or informal style cannot work in all situations aboard; emergencies or even simple manoeuvring of a vessel, besides many other situations, demand an autocratic approach. The crew knows that very well; they don’t need an office memo to remind them that a ship is not a democracy. They know who the boss is; they just don’t need their noses rubbed into that fact all the time. They know rank and responsibility and the need for crisp compliance; grant them that. They understand when a Captain is brisk- even brusque. They even understand why: they have been sailors for many years.

In fact, an informal or consultative style when non-critical operations are going on has another incidental benefit- officers and crew tend to trust you more and have confidence in your intentions. This, I find, makes for people who are happier, and therefore will, when the time comes, do that vital task with an extra snap.

Thing is, the difference between competent and exemplary performance- whether of a ship or a person or even an organisation- lies usually in that very same extra snap.


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