Update Sep 2005

How valuable is your time?

Preoccupation for operating software interferes with concentration:
When we fumble around looking for the right way to organise our documents or find the right function in the software, we interfere with the real job we are actually trying to execute via the software. Unless the software interaction can work subconsciously the user will have to concentrate on the filing or retrieval whilst solving a serious business problem. Ever tried filing or retrieving a document while talking to someone on the telephone? It takes a lot longer, and in the case of filing you may file it in the wrong place.

Now imagine you have 54 of these transactions per ship per day which is a fair practical estimation of the average for a tanker. Each one of the filing transactions should take at most half a minute, whereas the retrieval for the recent communications can take up to 1 minute or more than 2 minutes for ones received in the past. This adds up to approximately 57 minutes a day, 57 minutes of abject concentration. Any interruption and the filing part is definitely prone to complication and errors. Of course the 8 or 9 people (master, chief officer, second officers, chief engineer, operator, quality manager, superintendent, purchaser) involved with paperwork for each vessel on board and ashore need to learn the filing system well enough to file information for successive reference and retrieval as well as distribute them properly to avoid duplication of effort due to unnecessarily filing of messages hitherto dealt with by others.

The management of communications and information in a company can make a lot of difference in both routine and emergency situations. In fact, if we devise a rational methodology for measuring the efficiency of managing communications and information this will yield a most useful Key Performance Indicator. For example how many vessels a superintendent can handle efficiently without any unforeseen occurrences is a KPI.

Filing and retrieval is not the only time spent interacting with software:

  • What about distributing SMS manual and forms changes? Add 2 man-days or $700 per ship year. This is not a serious expense and it does not involve much time of senior managers on board but it is still about Ύ of the license cost of software that can reduce this by 90%.
  • What about training for familiarisation with company procedures? Add 20 man-days per vessel year or $5,500 per vessel per year of highly paid shipboard officers. This is still not a significant cost but it is absorbing the attention of very senior staff on board while the absence of proper familiarisation can cause a nightmare of complexity with audits and TMSA compliance. What is more this cost is 6 times the annual license and maintenance of software that can reduce this cost by over 60%.
  • What about planning maintenance and critical machinery spares replenishment for all the machinery on board (800 or so maintenance activities), in a manner that is compliant with good management practices and TMSA: The time taken to do this with spreadsheets or poorly designed maintenance software is about 400 man hours per year; which can be reduced to about 100 man hours per year using properly designed ergonomic software. A saving of 300 man hours per year per vessel is close to 40 man days, an enormous direct cost in time as well as opportunity cost, and which also happens to be at least 3 times the licence cost of PMS and Purchasing software.
  • What about filing and distributing additional risk discussions? This is a new requirement and it is difficult to estimate time expenditure as the process is not yet established. However risk discussions need to be followed by risk assessment and then by remedial action, temporary action, and then by closeout.
  • What about comparing internal inspection items with external inspections like vetting, port state control etc. and showing remedial action plans, change management plans, and risk assessment for those internal and external defects and non conformance items that take time to resolve? Again this is not easy to assess before the industry converges on a few established methods, however the issue requires the attention of very senior officers on board and ashore and should be given utmost attention in designing processes that avoid complexity. Failure to tidy up such records may expose inadequate risk management, a situation that will not be tolerated by oil companies. Note that oil companies have always found the responses they receive from shipowners about vetting issues, such as defects and associated risk assessments, remedial action and lessons learnt, to be primary indications of the quality of that shipowners'' management.

It is true that all the above man time savings do not represent a great percentage of gross income of a tanker if converted to dollars, however when adding all the components of expenditure on clerical work, it is in the order of one broker commission or one percent of gross revenue. In fact these savings represent a greater percentage when expressed in terms of operating costs and an even greater percentage when expressed in terms of management overheads. Above all, it is unintuitive work that no mariner would be particularly happy to do.

You could of course deal with the overloaded crew aspect and accept the expense, and therefore hire a "writer" on board, as Shell has recently done in their tank vessel complement. You probably already have the equivalent ashore. But will these people be happy to make a career doing a job that today can be automated? Would it not be better to hire an extra watch officer if you are inclined to increase manning on board?

If you have a secretary on board will it really save time and preoccupation?
In addition there are other reasons why placing a writer/administration assistant on board or even ashore assigned to the vessel, is not as efficient as might initially be expected:

  •  A secretary or a department assistant ashore has a long tenure with the same people so can be relied upon to assist in data management tasks with the benefit of behavioural adaptation. On board the matching of information management staff to officers is likely to be far less cohesive due to the turnover.
  • The nature of on board data management will dictate that an assistant on board will have standard tasks that require little co-ordination with on board staff. This excludes items like most of the checklists, personal familiarisation of officers to equipment process and equipment history, voyage plans, defects reports, diagnostic reports, non standard notices, memos, scheduling of maintenance in tight resource situations, stores and spares matching to needs etc.
  • The non-routine planning or resource sensitive tasks that are abundant on board would still need intervention by senior officers.
  • The most useful work an administrative assistant can do is work that needs no special judgement, and no personal involvement of the other officers. Checklist, reports, or familiarisation etc. would still have to be done by the stakeholders.
  • This relegates the work of the assistant to a relatively small variety of remaining items that ships'' automation and data systems should now be able to pick up and record such as instrument readings, electronic log abstracts and routine tasks for example standard format communications, receipts of stores and spares, etc.

A better approach to quality ship operation given an overload of work for the on board complement would be to provide an extra officer of conventional duties, not one relegated to clerical tasks soon to become obsolete.

Reducing documentation versus improving the way we handle and route information:
There is no doubt that unnecessary documentation needs to be reduced. Before we try to select which documents and data are superfluous we need to eliminate the totally unnecessary preoccupations with how to handle the data and how to perform unintuitive manoeuvres to achieve this. Whether we are involved with handling documents or data such as maintenance, purchasing or crewing data, we still need to improve how this data is handled. With the handling part optimised we can optimise the routing of documentation and finally minimise documentation itself.