Implementing Terminal Operating Systems

18 Jun 2013, Port Strategy

Implementing a sophisticated TOS in an emerging market means thinking hard, and investing upfront, not just in the system but the people Promising to cure all ills, the implementation of a TOS can still be a bitter pill for workers. Stevie Knight reports “It’s human nature,” Tim Vancampen of ICTSI explains. “As soon as there’s doubt, there’s regression; as soon as something doesn’t work as expected, you find people retreat to what they understand: in the case of emerging-market ports, this can be paperwork.” Getting people used to a new system, especially one that’s electronic, takes time in any place, but this is especially the case where there isn’t the same level of techno savvy as in Europe or the US. Mr Vancampen says: “We end up by taking pieces of paper away from people all day long, so until they’re used to being rid of the old, bureaucratic burden, there’s a good chance that a sophisticated operating system would be reduced to a registration record,” he explains. Mr Vancampen is a veteran of a number of operating system implementations, and is about to see his latest for the Port of Toamasina go live in August. Through these processes he has built up a deep understanding of how the human factor responds to these changes. He explains that Toamasina is putting in a Navis N4 system, similar to ICTSI’s MICT flagship operation in the Philippines. “An important reason for this decision is that we can tap into the resources of the mother company: actually we are flying people from here to Manila so that they can get some hands-on experience on a live system – yes, it’s expensive, but less expensive than a breakdown in service later on.”

Problem solver

However, this does not mean that any hiccups wil be completely removed: “I know enough to expect a proportion of the port’s employees will be running around confused for the first week, despite all training efforts. So, what I have to rely on is the ‘super user’ in every department who really knows what they are doing, and then things will eventually settle down.” Nico Berx of NB Solutions agrees, adding: “You have to let your clients know what is happening, and get them to be a little indulgent around any go-live date. It works out better for them later on, but you need that initial understanding.” Mr Vancampen explains that ICTSI employees from Manila are also being flown into Toamasina – also with very good reason. “Many of the established staff in these ports are over 50 and have been public officials for 20 years or more: as you’d expect they have a sense of seniority. Of course all but a few find the take up of new technology challenging at first, so what we do is find other employees in their peer group that are already familiar with the system, its worthwhile bringing them over: people do generally learn better from their peers.” He goes on to admit that however clever the software, his main interest is how people adapt and change. However, a GPS system will also be added to the Toamasina terminal to help give things a nudge in the right direction. “It’s textbook: ‘inventory integrity’ is everything with an automated TOS and you must be sure about the position of every container. However, in places like these keeping track of the boxes often means a lot more discipline and more individual accountability than the users are really used to: after all, individualism is a Western idea; here a sense of collective accountability is more common.”

Local challenge

However, other places can bring even more of a challenge, says Mr Vancampen: “Some of the staff on a new, greenfield site might not even be familiar with an office, let alone a computerised system, so if I see a guy playing on a Playstation, I think ‘there’s my planner’…” “In the end, ICTSI doesn’t accept a lower performance in these countries than in others; we have the same cranes, the same systems, so it’s just a question of getting the best out of everyone. However, the nice thing about ICTSI as a company is the way we work together across continents, that’s what we are very good at. If you are on your own and can’t fall back on this kind of relationship, it’s much, much harder.” Despite all this, Chris Wise of Seawise container planning software developer says that this Western familiarity with computers isn’t always a blessing. He points out that a number of years ago the skill sets in ports were made up of retired seafarers who had a wealth of hands-on experience. “What we gave them was a container planning tool, but it was always clear that they made the decisions,” he says. “However, this has changed, and now when there’s an issue, I often hear people saying ‘but the computer let me do it’.”

Real life

He explains that it’s a tension between flexibility and control. “For example, our system will allow you to make a yard or stowage plan that enters the hazardous boxes first, even if they are, initially, floating without anything underneath because they are the most demanding to position: you need to keep them both away from each other and things like sources of heat. Then you ‘place’ the reefers, and after that fill up around them with general cargo.” He adds that in an attempt to be idiot proof, many other systems didn’t allow you to hang a box in the air. What it has led to is a conundrum, says Mr Wise: “Systems like ours have hoovered up a lot of information from real, hard won experiences – like an option to flip-to if a vessel comes in from starboard instead of port side to the quay. These systems are now the reservoir of all that information, and to an extent it allows ports to put inexperienced people in front of the computer, but you have to realise that just a few percent of the time you need to know more than just how to work the PC. “In the end the user is there to run the programme, the programme is not there to run the user.” This point leads to another related one, the temptation to see an operating system as the way to answer all ills, says Mr Berx, adding that systems ‘support’ operations, “but won’t fundamentally change them”. So, if a process is wrong, it won’t put it right. This idea can be the biggest hurdle to even getting as far as implementation. Constantine Sokolov of Solvo explains: “Many start by brainstorming in an attempt to tackle the issue from every angle, holding lengthy discussions and assigning the most experienced and ‘brainy’ employees to categorise and cram all operative matters into one huge Excel table.” Mr Sokolov adds that the issues around the table itself seem endless. Mr Berx agrees: “You can build a ‘gas factory’ very easily, it delivers a lot of air but nothing tangible.” He also goes on to say that history can be misleading: “There’s always a number of ‘nice-to-haves’, but generally they don’t get used because they are actually just a habit.” –

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