Head of Operations, Felix Tang, explains how a high-touch approach is important when it comes to the implementation of their solution, PROPELLER, to ensure the implementation is as seamless as possible and engineering teams feel supported every step of the way during the digital transformation process.
We have been talking internally about how we don’t see ourselves as a SaaS company, at least not in the traditional sense.
Software is part of our solution, but it’s equally a personnel solution, and a hardware solution; no single component would have as much value in isolation as they do as part of a whole.
As SparesCNX’s Head of Operations, I coordinate the teams that go on board and work alongside engineering personnel to ensure a smooth (as is possible) and productive implementation of our solution. We are responsible for auditing how vessels manage spare parts, setting up the SparesCNX hardware stack, and training the relevant people on the software.
This is a vessel by vessel transformation of the way spare parts are organised, tracked, and reported upon, and the tech stack that supports this. It may go without saying that where there is digital transformation there is naturally a need for conscientious change management.
We are focussed on doing as much of the change management related heavy lifting for our clients as possible. This piece explores why, and looks at some examples of this in practice.
Change management is a bit of a business boogie man. People fear it, while often not fully understanding it.
In a perfect world we wouldn’t need change management experts. Everyone within an organisation would understand the need for change, and be fully invested in making it happen. Everyone involved would have a comprehensive understanding of all the necessary information, and apply the new information exactly where it needs to be applied without the need for project management.
You may be aware that we don’t live in a perfect world, and that change management can be difficult to do well.
Naturally, companies are aware of this difficulty, and in some instances, this awareness can hold up the execution of important digital transformation projects. Perhaps worse, transformation projects when poorly executed can result in companies ending up back at square one, burning through considerable amounts of resources and employee faith in the process.
The companies we work with shouldn’t have to be experts in digital transformation and change management in order to benefit from our product. This is precisely why we take such a high-touch approach.
People, more often than not, underestimate, or at least inaccurately assess, the challenges associated with change management. Whether this takes the form of underestimating the operational requirements, or not being cognisant of the social and emotional landscape, businesses all over the world struggle with this challenge.
Speaking to Humans, Part 1
So it is with the previous understanding in mind that we have built a culture of communicating the challenges in as accurate terms as possible. We do this while reassuring our clients that challenges are an important part of the process, and that our people will be there every step of the way in order to make sure that the relevant teams are set up for success.
This guidance cannot purely be operational. Anyone undertaking significant operational change needs to communicate to every person involved that it is likely to be difficult at times. (If it was easy, companies wouldn’t need help from outside).
We place a great degree of importance on creating an honest dialog with the teams that we work with. When we encounter challenges, they are raised across the relevant teams, addressed with urgency, and a solution is agreed and executed.
Teams don’t perform better because work is made easy for them (or made to sound easy), they perform better by becoming more capable and resilient. Even something as simple as verbally encouraging people to lean into discomfort can help people be better prepared for the realities of organisational change. If people are primed to expect difficulty, they are far more likely to respond productively.
Moreover, it is important to understand that the point at which things get difficult is often the point at which you can be fairly sure that meaningful progress is being made.
Whether this is an individual getting their head around a new process, or a whole company adopting a new set of terminology, the feeling of friction that comes with these changes needs to be understood as a kind of biting-point, and (re)framed as a positive part of the transformation process, rather than something to push away from.
If you have ever learnt a sport, played an instrument, or had to tackle complex mathematical problems, you will know that improvement typically comes after periods of challenging activity (and usually a good night’s sleep). As such, there is no reason that the working world should assume that improvements should come without that same kind of friction.
Here is a look at the first few phases of our transformation process, with an emphasis on the key considerations that enable us to get the best results.
Our Implementation Process
Engagement with key personnel [Superintendent, Chief Engineer, Captain]
This is often the first time we meet (whether in person or via video call) the whole leadership team from a particular vessel.
We outline the different steps in the process, highlighting when we will need things from their side (sign-offs, walk-throughs, access to specific personnel etc.).
I always take this opportunity to press home some key points:
- We are here to help: Should there be any concerns we are always happy to hear them, and will do what it takes to fix any issues that arise.
- Issues will arise: Commercial vessels are large and incredibly complex environments, and enacting meaningful change always comes with some unexpected challenges. Our teams are trained for this, and there will be an open dialogue with onboard leadership to address whatever comes our way.
- You will be in the loop: Though the SparesCNX personnel are leading the change management process, the client will be kept in the loop at all times. Crucially, the transformation plan will not be executed upon without being signed-off by both sides.
By being clear on these points, expectations are managed, and difficulties are likely to feel less alarming. All the while we are building trust not only that the leadership team will remain in control of the process (through sign-offs and walk-throughs) but also that we are respectful of their authority.
Vessel Pre-Audit [Engineering Team]
As part of the vessel pre-audit, we will gather information about the current state of the vessel as far as it intersects with our implementation and transformation process.
We assess network connectivity and infrastructure, the location of network cables and power cables, vessel schematics, spare part storage SOPs, ship layout, location of equipment manuals etc.
This is all so that we can have a clear understanding of the lay of the land, and that we can fully understand our starting point, in order to be as efficient as possible once we start, and make only the necessary changes on board.
By establishing a baseline we can then work on a customised plan to define how we will go about undertaking the digital transformation.
Every vessel will be different. Even for sister vessels there may be some differences in how they are set up and managed. So it is very important that all vessels go through this process.
Speaking to Humans, Part 2
With any transformation process there is always an inherent value judgment about the status quo.
The condition of any vessel and the SOPs that govern it are likely to be the product of the teams alongside which we are working. We want to avoid making anyone feel that we don’t value what they have done, lighting the fire of defensiveness (which can be a major spanner in the works).
Acknowledging that there are many things that don’t need to change, is almost as important as identifying the things that do. Not only will you avoid wasting time (going over work that has already been done) and resources (ordering, moving, and prepping hardware or teams for areas that are already set), but you acknowledge the work and value of the on board team. In a way, you get to celebrate some wins before much work has happened.
In the same way that we see a great deal of variation in terms of where vessels are starting from in terms of spares management norms and tech stack, we also see a great deal of variation in terms of where individuals start from.
This is to say that some people come into this process being excited about change and ready to help, other people come with less excitement about the undertaking. We need to be as mindful of these personal basslines as we are of the operational and infrastructure basslines.
Key Messaging For Engineering Teams
When communicating with the Engineering teams we are very clear on the following points:
- We are not here to unnecessarily make drastic changes to what you already have on board. We are undertaking the pre-audit to find out what you have right now that can be kept in place.
- Based on this status quo we can know what needs to be transformed in order that you can reap the benefits of our system: greater visibility, efficiency, and accountability.
- We are looking for the quickest path between where the vessel currently stands, and a full SparesCNX implementation.
The onboard teams we are working with do not directly work for me, I have no direct authority, and this needs to be taken into account. We could do a lot of damage by not acknowledging the status quo, which is where this vessel pre-audit comes in.
We do this pre-audit in part to thoroughly demonstrate to the Engineers that we are not just blindly wading in, and that we are being cognisant of the existing value, and identifying only those areas that need to change. This in itself is very powerful in terms of galvanising these onboard teams around what we’re doing.
Customised Installation Plan [Superintendent, Chief Engineer, Captain]
We incorporate information from the pre-audit, and the information gathered from onboard teams, and plan in detail how we will execute on our installation and transformation.
This highly customised action plan is signed off by onboard leadership before we start making any changes.
Although the plan is something we work on away from the client, by the time we start the work on board all parties have a very clear idea of what will be undertaken.
Speaking to Humans, Part 3
This is another instance where communication needs to be frank and open. If we have uncovered areas that need a lot of work, this needs to be raised in order that all parties understand the true level of difficulty and volume of work required. If we try to gloss over areas that are potentially problematic, then there will be surprises when issues arise, and they will be more difficult to resolve.
This sugar-coat-free approach is coupled with the message that we want the customer to be informed every step of the way, so that they are aware of the entire change management process. This again is the spirit of what we are doing as a company.
We (SparesCNX as a whole and my team on the ground) are all about providing transparency, and enabling increased efficiency, by bringing order to the chaos around spare parts management.
The Transformation [Engineering Team]
This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of working with the engineering teams to execute the action plan.
- Installing Hardware: Arguably the easiest part of the process. Our hardware comes preconfigured, so it is very much a plug and play set-up, and installation takes just one or two days.
- Transforming the necessary physical spaces to SparesCNX standards: We take a full inventory of all parts onboard, and organise them according to the SparesCNX standards for that vessel class. This involves tagging all spare parts with our proprietary RFID tags, and scanning them into the system, while organising the vessel’s spares storage spaces.
- Training Engineering Teams: The hands-on training on standards and software essentially happens alongside the physical standardisation of the vessel.
Speaking to Humans Part 4
It is essential to kick off this phase by speaking directly to the engineering teams, and giving them an unvarnished idea of what is about to happen. We let them know that following weeks will be a lot of work, but that if we do this right (and we will), the vessel will be set up for success going forward.
We are very deliberate in communicating that if they find themselves getting frustrated, or have issues with any of the work we are undertaking, that we are here to support them. If they encounter any issues that they are not confident addressing, they should come and find us, we are there as a resource, and we will work it out together.
I really see it as showing vulnerability, and telling the truth that when it comes to a deployment, that there is a lot of potential for unexpected hurdles.
Being Prepared For The Unexpected
Change management is like Parenthood. You can read all the baby books, or watch masterclasses about parenting, and listen to advice from your friends, and get all the information that you want, but nothing can prepare you for the day the baby comes and you are suddenly a parent.
Being a parent is unpredictable, and this goes for shipping too. However we are experienced and accept the fact that when we physically get on board any ship, we need to be prepared for the unexpected.
Essentially, we’re empowering our teams and the onboard teams to be more resilient in the moment. We are careful to make it clear at various stages that at some point something really tricky is likely to happen. When people know that things may be challenging, but also know that there is a support structure to deal with this, they are a lot more resilient in the moment, and are less likely to undermine the value of the task, resist doing it, or lose their temper.
While understanding the technical and operational aspects of transformation is essential, so is understanding how to get buy-in from everyone involved, and how to set them up for success.
Shipping companies should be experts at running vessels. Change management is not a standard part of that organisational skill set. As such, we see it as our role to help companies transition from one status quo to another. That is our area of expertise, so when you engage our solution, it comes with a very high touch implementation.
This way shipping companies can focus on running great shipping companies, while we focus on change management.