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Implementing Continuous Improvement in Familiarization Training

Posted to Maritime Training Issues with Murray Goldberg (by on November 16, 2011

This series of articles is a “how to” primer for implementing continuous improvement in maritime familiarization training. Even a modest program can yield significant results.

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Implementing Continuous Improvement in Familiarization Training


“Continuous Improvement” (or “CI” for short) is a term we hear a lot lately. Sadly, despite knowing the term and possibly even applying CI principles to some aspects of operations, CI principles are infrequently applied to in-house job and familiarization training (or for that matter to certification training at many maritime academies). This is a mistake. First - it is neither difficult nor expensive to establish and maintain a program of CI for in-house training. Secondly, there is a good chance that if you do ignore CI, not only will your training outcomes fail to improve, but they will likely deteriorate - with a concomitant deterioration in safety and operational performance. After all - if you are not applying improvement principles, you are also not likely measuring outcomes, which is a recipe for deteriorating performance.

The good news, as I say, is that it is easy to begin. Even a modest program can yield significant results. Once you have begun, you can then gradually expand your CI program making it more effective and more sophisticated. The improvement in training outcomes, trainee satisfaction, safety and performance can provide a tremendous return on investment given the low cost and effort of implementing such a program for your operational training.

This series of articles is a “how to” primer for implementing continuous improvement in maritime familiarization training. I will give an introduction to continuous improvement, talk about measurement and key performance indicators, and then discuss some simple metrics and techniques that apply specifically to maritime training.

Why Now?

Before defining continuous improvement (and as one last attempt to “grab you” if you were just about to stop reading), I would like to point out that this topic is especially timely now. You need to start thinking about this. Vessels, equipment and job routines in the maritime industry continue to become more and more complicated and sophisticated. As a result, deeper knowledge and more specialized skills are required to operate safely. Much of this knowledge and many of these skills are not or cannot be taught in the required certification courses. Instead, they must be taught as part of job and vessel familiarization training by vessel owners and operators. However, familiarization training in most organizations has not changed much over the years and as a result there is an increasingly large gap between the sophistication of operational training and the knowledge needs of modern seafarers. A program of continuous improvement for operational training is a necessary (and possibly sufficient) tool to apply to the task of closing this gap.

What Is Continuous Improvement?

I will keep this section short because I believe most of us already have a good idea of what is meant by continuous improvement. In fact, the term “continuous improvement” defines itself pretty well. But just to make sure we are all starting on the same page I will give a short definition here (which, by the way, is an important training technique - that of making sure your students all have a common foundation of understanding before teaching something that relies on that understanding … but I digress).

Paraphrased from Wikipedia:

A continuous improvement process (CIP or CI) is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. …. processes are constantly evaluated and improved in the light of their efficiency, effectiveness and flexibility …

  1. The core principle of CIP is the (self) reflection of processes. (Feedback)
  2. The purpose of CIP is the identification, reduction, and elimination of suboptimal processes. (Efficiency)
  3. The emphasis of CIP is on incremental, continuous steps rather than giant leaps. (Evolution)

So essentially the Wikipedia definition says that a CIP is a continuous process of reflecting on the task at hand and identifying and eliminating suboptimal practices in a series of incremental, rather than drastic steps. Sounds good so far.

My only complaint about the Wikipedia definition is that it emphasizes efficiency, but not effectiveness. This is a distinction I was always very careful to make when teaching the software engineering of safety-critical systems to my students at UBC. Maritime operations are an excellent example of a safety-critical system - one which can cause significant damage or loss of life if not done well. While it is important to make training in any system as efficient as possible, the primary goal in safety-critical systems is to make training as effective as possible. Effectiveness in our context means ensuring that required knowledge and skills are learned well by every trainee. This applies equally to assessment. Our assessment techniques must also effectively identify those trainees who did not learn the required knowledge and skills to the level required. Efficiency is important, but secondary.

Measuring and Managing

One of the cornerstones of any CI process is measurement of efficiency or (in our case) effectiveness. A mentor of mine and incredible businessman, David Coe (http://www.spoke.com/info/p6KVJVc/DavidCoe) is very fond of the saying “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. His point is that for any business process, including training, unless you implement a system of measurement to keep track of how well that process is functioning, there is no way to improve the process. After all, how would it be possible to determine whether changes you have implemented to improve effectiveness have had any success unless you have a system of measuring effectiveness in the first place? So let’s discuss measurement.

Key Performance Indicators

In order to measure something, you will need to establish a set of “Key Performance Indicators” or KPIs. These are the things you will measure and track. They are indicators of effectiveness and efficiency which provide a measurement of “key” or important aspects of training - those aspects you feel are worth optimizing. For example, if one of your goals is to create a positive educational culture in your maritime organization, you might feel that trainee satisfaction with the training process is an important aspect to optimize. You would then choose a KPI which attempts to measure that aspect as closely as possible. One way to do this might be to require all trainees to fill out a course satisfaction evaluation at the end of each course, and monitor the results of those evaluations as a KPI. That is just an example, we will get to some suggested KPIs and methods for gathering those KPIs later.

Whatever KPIs you choose, make sure that they are closely aligned with the high-level goals of your training organization. And although it may go without saying, also ensure that they measure aspects of performance that:

  1. Can be directly measured. Some important parts of any process are difficult or impossible to measure because data is either not easily available, or because there are too many confounding factors which make it difficult to isolate a particular indicator.
  2. You actually have some control over. Even if you can measure it, there may be little point, at least for the purposes of CI, if there is no easy way to influence the metric.

Also, it is wise to choose KPIs which will react reasonably quickly to changes made to training practices. For example, although “days without safety incident” is a critical KPI for any maritime organization, the value is not likely to change quickly with small changes in training (but may change substantially in the long term). Therefore as a training KPI it may not be useful because it will be hard to relate changes in this KPI to specific changes in training. Instead, have faith that if you take care of the “little” things (like lifeboat drill frequency and effectiveness) the “big” things (like overall company safety) will take care of themselves in this regard.

For a little more information on general KPI categories, check out this interesting article: http://goo.gl/OPNGZ

The Continuous Improvement Cycle

Although all CI processes agree that measurement is a key requirement, the next steps in a CI process vary subtly from process to process. If you do a web search, you will see a large number of CI “systems” including Deming, Six Sigma, Kaizen and many others. I suggest you look some of those up as a way to understand CI systems more deeply. However, all of the systems are variations of a very basic CI philosophy which is implemented as a continuously repeating periodic cycle and looks like this:

  1. Run your system for some period of time (in our case, perform your maritime familiarization and job training)
  2. Collect and analyse your KPIs
  3. Propose and implement changes which you believe will improve your KPIs
  4. Go to step 1

If you are interested, you can get good overviews of the more popular CI philosophies at the wikipedia articles below. They are short reads and each one will give you a little more background on CI in general, as well as provide links to further information if you want to learn more:

  1. The Deming cycle: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDCA
  2. Kaizen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaizen
  3. Six Sigma (more aimed at customer-facing processes, but interesting): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Sigma

The Period of the Cycle

The period of your CI cycle (the length of time that each cycle lasts) is determined by your ability to collect meaningful metrics and implement proposed changes. Depending on the size of your organization and the number of people you train, this might be anywhere from 6 months to a year or more. Remember, however, that CI is generally a process of making small changes, and that it is generally unwise to make too many changes during any one cycle since it may be difficult to determine which change affected the KPIs. Therefore, it is not necessary to establish a long period in anticipation of making a large number of significant changes. Shorter periods, as long as they allow for meaningful measurement, will create a training organization which is more responsive to trainee and organizational needs, and which can make quick course corrections when a change is found to be detrimental rather than beneficial.

Meta Reviews

In addition to the steps above, it is also important to periodically do a kind of “meta” CI review - a review to review your CI process itself. Here you would:

  1. Review your KPIs to make sure they optimally capture the aspects of performance most important to your training organization. In other words - do you have the right KPIs? Should any new ones be added? Any existing ones deleted or altered?
  2. Review the period of your CI cycle to ensure it is neither too long nor too short.
  3. Review performance in terms of your success in being able implement changes you felt were necessary.
  4. Review your performance in terms of how well the changes you made in the past improved the training KPIs.

By doing this you are applying the philosophy of continuous improvement not only to training, but also to the system which ensures the continuous improvement of training.

Continuous Improvement in Maritime Training and Familiarization

I’d like now to turn our attention to specific techniques which can be applied to maritime training. To do so, we will look at KPIs that are useful in this environment, and how to gather those KPIs. This will necessarily be an incomplete list, and not all suggestions will apply to your organization. However, it should be enough to give you a place to start, and a seed to grow your own ideas from.

Unfortunately, this blog is already too long, so this next section will be delivered in next week’s installment of my blog. If you would like to be notified when the next installment comes out, be sure to click the “Follow This Blog” link below.

In the meantime, please comment on:

  1. the kinds of continuous improvement processes that you are using, planning to use, or believe would be useful to use and track in your maritime training organization.
  2. the KPIs you believe would be useful to track in maritime training.

This way we can all benefit from the experience of one another.

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Let me write about your story so we can all learn from it! Is your organization leading the way in job and familiarization training? I’d like to write about it. Or, do you have an example of a poor familiarization experience or practice that we can all take lessons from? I would like to write about that too (without naming you or your company, in this case).  Contact me by email at [email protected] You have a familiarization tale to tell. You can benefit everyone by sharing it.

About The Author:

Murray Goldberg is the founder and President of Marine Learning Systems (www.marinels.com), the creator of MarineLMS - the first learning management system specifically for maritime industry training. Murray began research in eLearning in 1995 as a faculty member of Computer Science at the University of British Columbia. He went on to create WebCT, the world’s first commercially successful LMS for higher education; serving 14 million student in 80 countries. Now, in Marine Learning systems, Murray is hoping to play a part in advancing the art and science of learning in the maritime industry.

Blog Notifications: For the latest maritime training articles, visit our company blog here. You can receive notifications of new articles on our company blog by following the blog.

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