Checklists don't work in the maritime industry – or do they?

Most of us in the maritime industry have seen checklists at one time or another but probably have little previous experience of creating them. Some ‘experts’ think they’re simply an exercise in ‘back-covering’ that professionals shouldn’t have to use. Used properly however they’re terrific business tools.

It’s because we may have only worked with badly designed checklists, or we don’t understand how to properly manage them, that we sometimes hear even experienced people come up with excuses as to why they shouldn’t be used.

However, when operational or even commercial failures do occur, the root cause of those failures exists somewhere between ‘ignorance’ or ‘ineptitude’. Our ignorance may, up to a point, be forgivable when our mistakes are caused from a lack of knowledge, but our ineptitude is a different matter. If we are inept, the knowledge of how to complete a task clearly exists, yet we fail to apply that knowledge correctly. Either way, those conditions are unacceptable and we can’t permit them to exist in our business .

I’ve set out below some of the reasons I’ve been told that checklists don’t work in the maritime sector. I think the real reason is that design of the checklists in use is so poor. I’ll be discussing design in a future blog, but for now, I think it’s worthwhile setting out some of the excuses as to why ‘checklists don’t work’.

‘Because professionals like us already know what needs to be done!’

We may think that everyone knows what to do because they’ve done it a hundred times before. But even though we’ve told the crew what to do, people often don’t listen or they try and take short-cuts. Those short-cuts can easily hurt our operations in many ways and ultimately cost managers or owners a lot of money. I know it may take time to use checklists, but when there is a clearly defined and repeatable set of procedures in place, the time-saving achieved over the long term far outweighs any cost. If managers don’t have a written checklist that’s to be followed on every occasion, they’ll suffer inconsistency, operational failure and poor service. That’s just a fact.

‘Because checklists always get ignored when we’re too busy!’

Checklists must be ‘aids’ rather than an inconvenience. We all get busy and shortcuts can sometimes get taken. If managers or seafarers think they can get away with taking a short-cut or see something as unimportant, they will very often try to ignore a checklist. It’s important that checklists are seen to be a vital and essential part of an operation. If checklists are seen to be time-savers and aids rather than ‘jobs’ in themselves, they will be embraced and make our operations run much more smoothly.

‘Because the situation’s too fast-paced or ‘fluid’ to make a checklist!’

Boeing, NASA, the NHS and other large organisations often have entire teams dedicated to creating checklists for any and all eventualities. In the maritime sector we usually don’t have such resources – but fortunately, we can still realise significant improvements in our operations by using checklists even if we’re working quickly or on our own.

Once we become confident in designing checklists they can quickly be developed for managing most important activities. Well-designed checklists provide a consistently reliable or sustainable means of (a) saving money, (b) improving internal and external service levels, (c) protecting the environment and (d) saving lives.

‘Because the checklist is on doggy scraps of paper!’

Dog-eared or stained bits of old paper that are stuck to desks just look awful, so don’t expect them to be used! Checklists should be vital components in your operations. They’re needed so that managers and seafarers can provide a safe, consistently repeatable service each time. When they’re used well, even somebody who’s new in an office-based role, or has perhaps just joined a ship, could undertake the task just by following checklists – and that saves time and money.

‘Because the checklist is missing some tasks…’

Tasks that should be completed in a sequenced process need to be properly recorded. Missing a crucial step because it wasn’t listed is inexcusable! We need to ensure every step is recorded and ensure our checklists are updated whenever we devise new or improved ways of managing processes.

‘Because the checklist isn’t always completed…’

Like anyone else, managers and seafarers get distracted by external influences including emails, phone calls or other intrusions. We usually don’t mean to fail to do something, but things do get missed and those missed tasks could be important. We tend to justify behaviours to ourselves with remarks like “But this time it doesn’t matter” or “Oh, the Pilot will understand” but we should never allow ourselves to miss items out. For either our office or our vessel to work effectively we must be consistent. If items aren’t needed then remove them. But if you can’t remove an item for whatever reason then clearly, it’s essential that they’re completed!

‘Because no one’s responsible for completing the checklist…’

If there’s nobody assigned to undertake the specific tasks detailed on a checklist then no one is accountable for its completion and the task just doesn’t get completed! Everyone needs to know the extent of their responsibility. By using checklists properly, everyone understands their allotted tasks and what they need to do. If there are tasks that must be completed by certain individuals then those jobs must be assigned to them and steps taken to ensure the completion of those tasks. If they’re not completed, the person responsible must know that they will be held to account.

‘Because the checklist is just filed and isn’t monitored!’

Checklists are just as relevant in the office or on-board ship. If managers or senior officers don’t check to ensure that tasks are completed properly and on time, then the checklist is useless. To ensure and maintain control of any task or tasks, simply create an over-riding task to monitor each checklist (hourly, daily, weekly etc. – as may be appropriate for your needs) and then follow up with anything that’s overdue or outstanding.

‘Because the checklist is never reviewed to ensure its completed!’

Assumption is the Mother-of-all-Mistakes. If there are six tasks to be completed during (say) a process like taking a cargo booking, rigging a pilot ladder or preparing for tank entry, a manager or officer will want to know that each step has been properly completed. We can never assume that everything’s been done. Just assuming things have been done ‘because they’re on the checklist’ is a recipe for disaster. Officers or managers undoubtedly need to keep on top of what is going on in their vessel or business. So, we should set aside time to check the progress of checklists. Ensure anything that’s overdue or incomplete is investigated and sign off each checklist when it’s complete.

We may think that we don’t need to use checklists for many reasons and it’s only human nature to make mistakes or to try and take short-cuts. However, those mistakes or short-cuts could hurt our people or our operations in many ways – and cost us money.

This argument applies to everyone in the industry be they directors, managers, brokers, riggers, stevedores or seafarers. Checklists are designed to limit the impact of our ignorance or ineptitude. These aren’t permanent conditions, they are momentary and can occur for many reasons. The consequences of failure due to ignorance or ineptitude is always costly and may be catastrophic. Checklists are a vital element in systematising and streamlining maritime operations…

Simon Beechinor is a Commercial Operations Director, Project Manager and Master Mariner with extensive senior management experience of the maritime industries. His background includes the management of a major shipping company as Commercial Operations Director, and subsequently CEO, of a large marine consultancy and cargo services company based in S.E Asia and a Pacific-based regional liner trade.

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