News Article 15/08/2005

Too many jobs on the radar

15/08/2005 - Lloyd's List- Monday August 15, 2005. p.6


Who is not driven mad by paperwork and administration, much of it needlessly multiplied and driven by regulation, the mitigation of liability or simply keeping someone in a job?

My dentist, in the sort of one-sided conversation that is a speciality of his profession, was suggesting the other day that he was being driven to distraction by the drivel emanating from the General Dental Council. I hoped (silently) that he wouldn't take it out on me.

Teachers, to stay on the right side of the Working Time Directive, now have a half day a week "out of the classroom" for paperwork, which is another reason why your little horrors are not learning anything.

Doctors and policemen are diverted from their main job of curing us and catching criminals, respectively, by hours and hours of form filling and report writing, most of which they regard as both futile and time wasting and not the reason that they took up their noble callings.

So, when poor shipmasters complain about the need to weigh the navigational needs of their ship and her safe passage with the requirement to answer 132 e-mails and tackle a vast assemblage of assorted paperwork before their ship reaches the fairway buoy, they ought to be aware that their plight might attract sympathy but will be regarded as merely the way of the world.

But what if, when all this frantic paper was being shuffled, the visibility was nil, the radar wonky and the first trip third mate was the officer of the watch with the ship inbound up the English Channel?

No question where the priorities must lie, but there will be a total absence of understanding when the e-mails lie unanswered and the vital paper is not forthcoming when the shore officials tramp up the gangway on arrival. It is not good enough.

A few years ago, riding a ultra large crude carrier from Brixham up to Europoort, I had been impressed with the frantic activity of the radio officer, who spent his time dealing with a veritable paper storm as the ship prepared for arrival..

He worked like a maniac, rushing back and forth with important messages with which he kept the master updated. This was a company, which had, for this very reason, elected to maintain the R/O in post while most others had phased him out. I reflected that without this assistance the master''s job would have become almost impossible, if the safety of this huge ship at a difficult part of the voyage was not to be compromised.

At least his employers insisted on the employment of a sea pilot. A friend of mine who, until a couple of years ago, took a big transatlantic containership around an eight-port European rotation, told me that he enjoyed no onboard assistance for the paperwork while the company, taken over by another keener on cutting costs, had removed his pilotage assistance.

The company "mission statement" waxed large on its commitment to safety. He was very glad to retire.

On the subject of paperwork, I was looking at a particularly poignant copy of an arrival checklist - which must surely be considered an "essential" piece of paperwork, if ever there was such a thing - which is featured as an appendix to a recent report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch.

It indicates all the right things - that the master had been called, the arrival broadcast had been made, the ship was on hand steering, engines on stand by and stabilisers in, vent fans stopped, hydraulic pumps started, water integrity switches to harbour, visor ramp switches to harbour.

All the boxes had been ticked, barring the final three which should have indicated the starting of the thrusters, the arrival of the ship and the transfer of control to the bridge wing.

Sadly, by this time, in a perfect example of the discontinuity of the paperwork from reality, the ship had embedded itself in the quay. To be fair, it was poor bridge management, rather than the over-attention to paper which was judged to be responsible for the considerable damage.

But readers will recall the collision between the cruiseship and the container vessel, caused (partly) because the passenger ship OOW had been distracted from the heavy traffic by his compulsion to complete a Garbage Management Form. This fortunately fatality- free accident has been duly entered into the annals of maritime history.

Shell Tankers, which thinks deeply about these matters, has announced that it is to place a sort of "administration officer" aboard its tankers. It has been widely commended for this, although I don't suppose the pompous souls who shoulder their way into the master's office on arrival will be prepared to tolerate a mere clerk.

There is nothing new about this, of course. My old uncle, at sea for 40 years with the old British India Steam Navigation Co, always carried a "writer" to undertake what was by today's terms a fairly light paperwork burden.

The ships I sailed in were all furnished with a Purser, who effectively minimised the master's paperwork in addition to curbing our appetites. Masters today receive their "we fail to understand" communications directly and electronically, and have to respond themselves.

The Shell O/C Bumph is a recognition that such a back-up to help with the paperwork burden is very necessary. I suppose there might be arguments about whether the admin assistant should be a second mate, a clerical specialist, a junior engineer, recycled Sparks, or someone who understands the ISM Code.

It might be asked whether such a person will mind doing such a job as a career, because he or she can hardly progress as a clerical specialist.

And while the continuity of a shore side secretary, while there were such persons, was one of their chief assets, assuming the Shell clerical officer will undertake normal crew rotations, there will not be a great deal of this, as crews change.

But is a person placed aboard ship, primarily to assist with the paper mountain the answer? Dimitris Lyras, whose Ulysses marine management software has made a great deal of difference to information handling ashore and afloat, acknowledges that he is professionally biased, but suggests that there are better alternatives.

Mr Lyras' views stem from his conviction that software is available to store and gain access to vast quantities of information but is enormously under-used at present.

He also believes strongly that information management ashore is taking a "divergent path" to that practised afloat. Aboard ship is the requirement to record data proving due diligence, combined with the closer monitoring of process from ashore.

All is hugely increased in the tanker sector by the new creature of Tanker Management Self Assessment, which is, he says, really a "customer driven focus on the International Safety Management Code".

The ship also has to cope with the increased appetites of head office, charterers and other external bodies for more data, which they now have the ability to handle.

In a sort of electronic version of Parkinson's Law, the systems ashore require more and more data to be supplied by the ship, and they want it NOW.

But, whereas ashore there is usually sufficient staff, equipment and systems to handle all this data, aboard ship there is no way to meet the demand without increasing the crew.

Mr Lyras believes that shore-based and shipboard practices need to be reconciled, with data management assistance placed aboard ship.

If one goes down the Shell route, with a clerical officer placed aboard, it has to be acknowledged that while there will be tasks which require no specialist judgment to be done, there will be many which require intervention or deferral to a senior officer.

He suggests that, rather than adding people to the crew to do things, which the world ashore is trying to automate, we need to consider and improve the onboard management processes.

Do career mariners, he asks, want to spend their days in filing, retrieval and data entry? Marine professionals, he says, answering his own question, would rather waste as little of their time as possible on such matters.

The establishment of well-thought-out means of communication and routes that are both ergonomic and intuitive for onboard users will overcome a whole range of associated problems.

The transparency of the status of processes, matching human resources to events, the avoidance of obsolete data, the placing of more critical eyes on written procedures to improve them, improved decision-making and the reduction of time spent wading through e-mails are just some of the more obvious consequences.

If the industry can bring itself to adopt such a route it will be doing no more than is being done ashore, where the need for human clerical assistance is being rapidly diminished.

It is worth considering what is already being done with electronic ticketing, home accounting and tax calculation, and company systems and processes ashore which are far more complex than those between a shore office and a number of ships. Software, says Mr Lyras, is the "missing ingredient", although it needs to be software "your mother or your boss can use".

It also needs to be developed by people with proved experience in information management, setting up information routeing that is both effective and convenient.

It is systems and software, not secretaries, that can make some inroads into the paper mountains which are so incommoding shipmasters with more pressing demands on their time.