Mind the learning gap

During the last eight years I have trained many marine tank storage operators on how to control the ship/shore interface and achieve operational excellence. The first thing I do is ask a simple question: are you really in control? After that I ask them ten relevant questions. Too often I come to the conclusion that full control has not yet been achieved.
To control any operational or management system, the first part is to become aware about the risks and vulnerabilities of the operational system. What I observe is what is called ‘compartmentalisation’. People tend to focus on a part (their task) of the organisation. Operators do the operators’ job, loading masters theirs or management ‘manages’.  People usually look at ‘parts’ because they don’t understand the ‘whole’.
If I train them to understand how the whole system should work, amazing results are achieved. I show them that if feedback (information about their responsibilities) is shared and communicated, the operations can be controlled much better. It means that people in the terminal, refinery or transport company have an obligation to learn much more about the entire system. Focusing on their tasks alone and not understanding what the duties of others are, limits the ability to run and control the operations fully. It is all about an overall view.
You may ask: who is responsible for learning? I’d say there is a shared obligation to learn as much as one can. Management can order that people need training, but people must demand they are trained as well. The best scenario is that anyone working there should be motivated to reflect on his or her own awareness, knowledge or skill: ‘I don’t seem to know enough, I will make sure I will learn more.’ To assist companies, we observe people during operations and test competencies. Only when all needed capabilities are confirmed can we certify that maximum control has been achieved.
As a training company we notice that investments are made primarily in equipment, automation, tanks or technology, but that investments in learning is overlooked. This is an error of omission: things that should have been done have not been done. No matter how much management wants to reduce costs, people must not be ignored as a decisive factor when incidents or accidents occur.
People steer the operations but can do much better if they are taught how to think in systems. When they develop an overall view of their operations and learn that every task, duty or job is interdependent and interconnected, overall excellence becomes possible. It means that everyone must understand the law of requisite variety: a terminal generates tremendous variety and tries to control them through HSEQ rules, checklists or regulations. But that is not enough.
A terminal needs to develop internal requisite variety to be able to absorb (counter-balance) ‘outside’ variety (risk). This means having the people with the combined knowledge, experience, expertise and influence to do so, sharing all relevant information, and thinking in systems.

This is the latest in a series of articles by Arend van Campen, founder of TankTerminalTraining. More information on the company’s activities can be found at www.tankterminaltraining.com. Those interested in responding personally can contact him directly at arendvc@tankterminaltraining.com.

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