Are you fluent in Quality Management-ese?

Are you fluent in Quality Management-ese?

A friend spent a year as chief engineer of a North European ferry.  The friend in question says that I can use his name, which is Duncan, and he says that I can name the very, very, well known outfit who owned that ferry, and owns an awful lot of other sorts of ship, too, but I feel that perhaps I had better not.  You may like to be the judge of this, as you read on.

This particular ferry was, in accordance with company policy, a ‘dry’ ship. As so often happens with ‘dry’ ships, not everyone in the crew was quite as dry as the company might have liked. (At this point a vision rises before my eyes of almost the entire crew of a ‘dry’ containership standing in the bar of the Kwai Chung branch of the Hong Kong Mariners’ Club as sailing time drew nigh, all of them getting just as ‘wet’ as they could manage, and then weaving their way over to the waiting minibus.)

One of Duncan’s colleagues aboard this ferry was so notably un-dry that he managed to report for duty onboard, having left his documents in the taxi. He discovered this some little time later.


Now, Duncan is not without a sense of humour, so before he paid off himself he carefully wrote, printed off, and bound a spoof section of the company SMS entitled, ‘Conduct when Socially Disadvantaged’, using the same type face and formatting as the actual SMS, and left it lying about.

When he re-joined the ship, he found that his spoof had been incorporated into the real SMS, and circulated round the fleet.

From this, Duncan draws three conclusions:

  1. That ferry company is deficient in sense of humour (but we all know that anyway)
  2. That company’s SMS, like most companies’ Safety Management Systems, is unreadable, so nobody reads it
  3. In this day and age, any ship carries with her the equipment needed to forge any document that her officers may feel they are in need of, so why on earth do shore inspectors, be they Port State Control folks or any other variety, insist on paper documents?

Anyone disagree with Duncan?

Thought not.

At this point, I have a confession to make. Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, a younger, brighter, and far more bushy-tailed version of myself looked at his then employer’s fleet instructions and was horrified by the thought of what a good barrister might make of them. Indeed, this bushy-tailed young man wrote a note to his managing director which summarised the fleet instructions as:

  1. Thou shalt not carry unmanifested cargo
  2. Thou shalt not appear in a passenger space out of uniform
  3. Masts shall be painted mast colour.

And with that he volunteered himself and a couple of others for the task of writing a new version.

This was about a decade before the ISM Code came into effect, but I think I can, to my lasting shame, confess to having been aboard that particular band wagon. I have since jumped off it, because I cannot think of anything in shipping, not even time charter clauses, that has generated quite so much boring, unreadable, garbage.

I have not the slightest doubt about what a good barrister can do with almost every company’s SMS; he will be able to demonstrate that hardly anyone has actually read it, because it is unreadable. It is written in Quality Management-ese, a very special language used for programming, not computers, but people.

There is a large and well established cottage industry built on Quality Management-ese, and the ignoble thought occurs that the late Douglas Adams might have had some fun with this, had he not died in 2001, at a time when the whole racket was just getting into its stride.

So, what are we going to do about it?

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  1. Andrew Craig-Bennett
    June 1, 2016 at 9:22 am

    Those familiar with the world of Quality Management may wonder how Duncan’s spoof was not identified as such within the content tracking system of the ferry company’s SMS. Duncan points out that, at the time, no amendment tracking system was in place, so the only way to see what had changed in the SMS was to re-read the whole book when you came back from leave. Some companies still operate this way.

  2. Richard
    June 1, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Regarding Duncan’s conclusion #2, it is not just the “Quality Managementese” that makes these systems unreadable, but also the sheer volume of printed words that is daunting; more so in an industry where any common language [normally English] is increasingly the second language of the people who have to read this stuff. Unfortunately, many Companies still view the SMS as a CYA system, so that they can prove they’ve “done their bit” and if something goes wrong they can say “Well it was in the SMS, why didn’t you read it?” This leads to a mushrooming of paper.

    As for conclusion #3, that can be laid squarely at the door of the IMO who, through SOLAS, require original paper documents onboard. Having worked in Africa these last few years, I have no doubt that this regulation can be quite lucrative for PSC and others.

    On the other hand, in several countries here the various government agencies simply don’t have the resources to operate anything other than a paper-based system.

    1. Andrew Craig-Bennett
      June 1, 2016 at 11:07 am

      Very good points, Richard.

      The CYA culture is probably what led to the inclusion of Duncan’s spoof memo in the SMS – an awful lot of people go round just adding to the SMS and thinking that they have done something useful!.

      Port State Control can be a remunerative business in many places. It is interesting to note that the places where a pourboire is commonly slipped to the PSC inspector are seldom places that owners of “less compliant” ships hesitate to trade to, unlike, say Northern Europe or Australia.

      I would like to see the IMO realise that anyone with a smart phone and a signal can interrrogate the Equasis data base…

  3. William Sharpe
    June 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm

    New Zealand has it right with a safety management system for small commercial vessels developed proportionate to the operators needs with the actual operation in mind. A laminated checklist attached with a bit of twine to the binnacle and actually looked at is far more valuable than a metre of binders or an electronic database which is rarely if ever opened.

    Properly designed SMS systems do work. Canadian hospitals recently have taken a leaf from aviation cockpit checklists, with the result that correct limbs are the ones actually amputated and the patient leaves the operating theatre without hardware inside.

    1. Andrew Craig-Bennett
      June 2, 2016 at 1:18 am


      Something more like the aviation industry’s “QRH” (“Quick Reference Handbook”) is far, far better than the metre of loose leaf binders.

  4. Anirban
    June 4, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Any of you guys have seen a GMDSS handbook recently? Your ideas of handbook better be ready for the shock.