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By Torkel Soma, Partner,
Propel Maritime Management Consulting, Oslo.

How can companies build a culture that nurtures high reliability?




January 2012. I have found my seat. An announcement informs: “Good afternoon and welcome on board this flight to Schiphol Airport. We are now fuelled up and ready, but are waiting for a last remaining passenger”. 

A few minutes go by before a middle-aged man enters the plane in a hurry and finds his seat next to mine. He seems too determined to be a businessman, and too well-dressed to be a blue-collar worker. My suspicion that he works in shipping is soon confirmed: he is a technical superintendent on his way back from a docking. The talking gets started.

It is the “docking story” we have heard several times before. First, he tells me about all the unforeseen challenges. Technical problems had been held back by the engineers on board. The man continues:

“I even gave the chief engineer a warning last time he reported an incident – I told him that this was his last chance – and now he is disappointing me again by holding back important information…”. But, all in all, the superintendent was happy with the docking. True enough, they had had to cut a few corners and turn a blind eye to some of the company procedures – but they made it on time and felt they deserved a treat, so he arranged a night out with all the crew at the end.

So the superintendent was happy with this achievement, but had he really done the company a favour – or rather the opposite? It is easy to blame a chief engineer, or anybody else for that matter, when something goes wrong – and we tend to avoid asking the important questions:

1. Have we done enough to foster open dialogue when it comes to on-board problems?

2.  What is the likely consequence of giving a warning when someone reports an incident?

3. What are the consequences of a shore manager turning a blind eye when shortcuts are taken?

4.  Are you aware of the signals you give when you reward the crew for reaching a certain deadline despite knowing that corners have been cut?

Like it or not, there are few shipping companies that can truly say “yes” to all four of these questions. And why is this important? It is important because at least 80 per cent of all major accidents involve human error. And if you experience a major accident in your fleet, it would not only put human lives at risk, but it would also harm your company commercially in terms of increased costs, cancelled contracts, off-hire and loss of reputation.

How you behave as a shore manager greatly influences the behaviour of the crew on board. Through the way you act, you show the crew what the company’s “true” priorities are. Hence, it is your leadership style and commitment that make the difference.

Here are some other situations to which you, as a shore manager, should pay special attention and act as a role model for the company values:

Visits on board – do you communicate expectations and goals clearly, and do you talk with the crew or only to them?

Officers’ appraisal –  do you know the crew well enough to make a thorough  assessment?

Docking –  do you still comply with the company safety objectives?

Officers’ seminars – do you attend, do you prepare well enough and behave as a good role model?

Near-misses – do you encourage crews to report near-misses and to suggest improvements? Do you register and analyse these reports, and issue fleet circulars about best practices based on them?

Safe behaviour does not happen by chance
Leadership can be defined as social influence over a group of people to achieve a common goal and it is strongly interlinked with company culture –  leadership nurtures culture (and vice versa). This is how leadership commitment and company culture go hand in hand. Hence, as a leader you must both think about how you achieve the status and trust needed to influence others and how you actually use your status and trust. When you learn to see the signs, it is quite easy to see the dominating leadership style of your company. The superintendent on his way back from the docking is an example of how easily your company can be diagnosed. In general, companies can be divided into four cultural categories, in which different cultural signs dominate. The four categories range from the least committed: “Laissez-faire”, to the most committed: “High reliability”. These four cultural categories are described below.

Low interest in safety. Here the crew see their managers (on board and/or ashore) as indifferent to the prevention of failures. Responsibilities are not followed up. If somebody fails or makes a mistake there is a fair chance that nobody will care or notice. Hence, the near miss reporting is low. Failure is seen as a problem caused by the crew; it is thought that little can be done to prevent problems from occurring. Initiatives to improve reliability are driven by external pressure from clients, class, etc.

Self-interest dominates over company interest. For example, managers’ priority is to maintain their own power, to avoid conflict and play down problems. If you fail or criticise, you are seen as a threat to the power and the harmony of the working climate.

As a result, people are afraid of failing, reluctant to speak up, have a rigid focus on responsibilities and focus mostly on overall results such as budgets and time of arrival. There is little co-operation between departments. Hence, company interests that are dependent upon several departments such as planning of off-hire, delivery of spares, communication with crew, cargo troubleshooting, etc., are given lower priority.

Company interest starts to dominate over self-interest. Here managers are oriented towards routines and compliance with procedures. Reliability is seen as something they have (or don’t have), with reference to the quality of their management systems. If you fail, this is seen as a need either to improve procedures or to enforce compliance. Lessons learned are efficiently used to share such experience. People feel that their managers treat them relatively equitably, but each individual’s positive or negative behaviour can easily be overlooked. While managers see the need for more supervision, the workforce sees the need for more care and personal touch.

High reliability
The workforce sees their managers as committed to both high reliability and efficient ship management. Managers are seen as trustworthy and are familiar with daily work challenges (beyond routines). It is acknowledged that high reliability is dependent on how things are done in daily work and is a result of good teamwork and co-operation. If somebody fails, it is seen as an opportunity to learn both for the crew and shore management.  Everybody is constantly trying to improve reliability, implying high flexibility and encouragement to critical views.


Managing errors requires and environment where speaking openly about
concerns and mistakes is appreciated.

How do we develop a high reliability culture?
In many shipping companies, the signs of “cover-up” dominate. Higher sustainable safety performance is not achieved by chance. Something has to be actively done differently to reach a higher safety performance. The description of how to prevent and manage errors is based on the acknowledgement that no matter how hard we work to prevent errors, some errors will occur anyway. Therefore the main principle for you as a manager is that we can not only focus on preventing errors, but we also need to look at what we can do to handle them and diminish their consequence. This principle comprises a three-layered approach on the ability to:

1. Do it right in the first place. Preventing errors from occurring by following routines, and furthermore assess and prepare based on potential threats.

2. Manage errors when they occur. Everybody makes mistakes. Hence, the important thing is to prevent errors from developing into a critical situation by searching for and correcting errors.

3. Handling critical situations. Emergency and recovery actions.

If you adopt an authoritarian leadership style you may to some extent achieve good results in the first and third category, but you will (as the superintendent in the docking) fail considerably in the second one. In a way, this is shipping in a nutshell. We have spent the last decade building up management systems, procedures and checklists to develop good routines (point 1). Furthermore, research and accident investigations demonstrate that shipping is fairly good in handling emergencies (point 3). Our weak spot is to manage errors when they occur (point 2) as it requires a social environment where speaking openly about concerns, mistakes and potential threats is appreciated.

Cross-industry research has shown that companies that operate with high reliability in environments of rapid change and high-risk exposure have the signs of “high reliability”. The way to reach “high reliability” is not straightforward, but three steps that should be given special attention are outlined below.

Understand the realities of the operation
In “high reliability” companies, the full line of management has clear awareness and understanding of the daily work situation on board, and of its limitations and challenges. Managers are especially aware of their relationship with the seafarers because they know how difficult it can be to speak up about ideas and concerns. This operational insight improves decision-making and management’s ability to manage conflict between different goals such as compliance versus getting the job done in time.

Shipping companies that do not satisfy the requirements of “high reliability” may often openly express statements revealing their ignorance such as “our procedures are ok, the problem is the crew who do not follow them”, “100 per cent of our seafarers follow the procedures all the time” and “we never told him to take a risk like that – our regulations are clear that safety always comes first”. Another sign is when on-board operations are interpreted through a few performance indicators, missing the total picture.

You as a manager must actively position yourself to be sensitive to the on-board operation. It may imply that you need to visit the ships more often. Here are some steps you should consider:

1. You, as a manager, can not sit and wait for the crew to tell you about operational concerns. Due to our communication barriers (inherited from our history and multinational environment) an “open door policy” is not enough. You have to actively go out there and demonstrate that you need to understand the daily on-board work challenges. Use crew seminars, ship visits, crew training sessions, etc., as opportunities to meet the crew. 

2. You, as a manager, have to know the names of the members of your ship’s management team. You have to know the personalities of your subordinates and their family situation. What is it that motivates them and what are their fears? You have to convince the captain and officers that they have support from you and that you trust their capabilities.

3. You need to have an overview of the ship’s social atmosphere, personnel strengths and weaknesses, technical limitations, cargo characteristics, challenges arising in different ports, importance of different roles on board, etc. Be aware that it is an ”overview” you are aiming for and not all the details.

Show that you truly care for safety and management of errors
In “high reliability” companies the whole organisation works based on the hypothesis that errors, deviations and non-conformities are symptoms of underlying weaknesses, even though they seem to be isolated problems. For example, if you receive a non-conformity report, the focus is not only to close it, but to understand how it developed, why it has not been detected earlier, whether there may be similar cases, etc.  Hence, errors are discussed in detail. Furthermore, it is acknowledged that it is a difficult task to manage. When we make a mistake ourselves, often we can easily pinpoint the external factors that influenced our beliefs or acts. However, we have a human tendency to simplify how we judge other people through stereotypes and assuming that actions are determined by personal traits. If you simplify less and discuss more you will also see more. Shipping companies that do not have this characteristic have an evident focus on quick fixes, gap closing and corrections. People involved in incidents may be sanctioned or dismissed.

You, as a manager, must actively break the communication barrier that prevents dialogue regarding concerns. There are some steps you should follow: 

1. Most crew feel that they are safe enough –  so why bother about errors? You must give them clear expectations to live up to and provide an understanding of the importance of accident prevention. Convince your crew and colleagues that it is possible to prevent all accidents and also that prevention is important for the company and the environment. It is vital that self-interests have lower priority.

2. Be a role model in addressing concerns. If you show that you have also made mistakes and speak openly about it, you will contribute to reducing the communication barrier. The overriding principle must be that errors happen, but it is unacceptable not to  act upon them or learn from them.

3. Actively address that it is a sign of strength to allow others to check the quality of your own work. You should be happy if somebody cared to question how you do your job. When it comes to safety there are no hierarchies or ranks. Everybody must be empowered to speak up about concerns. When you do all of the above, you must communicate that these are the principles that you try to adhere to, and encourage others to also question these principles and your own behaviour.

Involve your colleagues and managers
Improving the organisational capabilities can put you and your colleagues in a vulnerable situation. The side effect of openness is that weaknesses are brought to the surface. This is, however, what you want to achieve, because then you and your colleagues can act upon the weaknesses before they develop into critical situations and losses. But be aware that this is a delicate process and, if you are not prepared to handle it and seek to avoid blame, you will fall back to the “cover-up” level. To succeed you need backing from your colleagues and managers. 

Involve your colleagues and managers in your initiative. Show the need for change by using examples from your company’s own operation where weaknesses have not been addressed quickly enough. For example:

– How often is the Designated Person Ashore (DPA) called up by the crew?

– How often are breaches of procedures reported and there are no consequences?

– How often are personal mistakes made by the captain reported to shore?

– How often do you get feedback from the crew about unclear procedures?

Agree on how you all approach subordinates. You, as a management team, must have one voice to earn the trust of your crew and other subordinates. Therefore, you must ensure that you are working towards the same goal by agreeing on some rules, both promoting openness and how you all respond to errors, concerns and failures.

When new weaknesses surface, you should share this as a success story – not as a failure. Openness is exactly what you want to achieve. Make people aware of what could have happened if the weakness had not been discovered. Discuss how you, as managers, could help bring this weakness to the surface even earlier the next time.

This article has tried to beam a searchlight on an important control mechanism which is often lacking in shipping.1 There are huge differences in leadership styles implying that there is a huge improvement potential in professional leadership –  ensuring efficient and reliable operations. In order to build a culture that nurtures high reliability, the whole line of management must be aware of the cultural signs that influence safety performance. Above all, the managers must build trust and learn the leadership skills for nurturing high reliability. In this task the company superintendent is key, as he represents the link between ship and shore personnel.

1 See also the article “Safety culture – Managing conflicting goals in shipping operation” in Gard News issue No. 200, which discusses how culture influences work practices.


Any comments on this article can be e-mailed to the Gard News Editorial Team.