Building a Dream Team

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In the oil business, an undesirable event, incident or accident can put lives at risk, and cost the contractor or the customer tens of millions in lost revenues, cause damage to equipment and delays, and ultimately result in a damaged reputation costing immeasurably more.

PGS has embarked on a project to better protect all parties by investing directly in crew competence: not just technical competence, but also teamwork and organizational competence. Such gains in crew competence have been proven to reduce downtime, insurance claims, operational and capital costs and a reduction in significant events by as much as 70%.

Key Benefits of Investing in Crew Competence

  • Up to 70% reduction in significant events
  • Crew is better at managing stressful situations
  • Total technical downtime has reduced by up to 50%
  • Fewer insurance claims and reduced severity of incidents
  • Lower operational and capital costs

Coming out of a period of depressed spending on exploration, the direct benefits to both PGS and its customers has been to buck the trend. We have maintained sustained operational reliability, with low reputational risk exposure and without changes to equipment or technical process, but with a full-focus on the human performance within a team and the larger organization.

Traditional Seismic Vessel Operations

PGS has been running 3D seismic vessel operations since 1991, initially using the traditional offshore crew structure universally adopted in the offshore seismic industry at the time. This structure, historically, comprised of a vessel operation split roughly down the middle between seismic (back-deck and instrument-room) activities and maritime (engine-room, hotel, and deck) activities.

At its extremes, during the ‘bad old days’ of seismic, one could have almost cut the vessel in half along a line between the engine room and the back deck, going upwards through the vessel between the galley and the instrument room, and it would have been some time before anyone would have noticed. Well, maybe at the first mealtime the seismic crew may have realized something was missing!

In this tradition, vessel activities have been arranged around line-reporting structures, and performance was, in the main, focused around individual department technical up-time, or rather the allocation of ‘punishment’ downtime: both lagging indicators that are not always useful in predicting future performance. The success of the seismic operation as a whole was largely left to senior management to take a view, and the levers they had available to influence activities on the shop floor were limited. This often resulted in direct interaction between senior management and field crews onboard the vessels.

Inline bunkering is a critical operation dependent on close cooperation between the crew of the support vessel and the PGS crew
Inline bunkering (Ramform Tethys) is a tricky operation that depends on close cooperation between the support vessel and the PGS maritime crew and good communication is essential

Seismic Vessels are Different

These predominantly function-oriented models work, to a degree, and have been in use since at least the 1950s with, apparently, acceptable results. The challenge comes when we start to consider the sensitivity of a seismic operation to the robustness of the maritime systems.

For example, should a cargo vessel or a cruise ship lose its main propulsion for 10 minutes during a voyage, the likely consequence is the delay in arrival at the destination by a similar 10 minutes. For a seismic operation, however, the dynamics are fundamentally different as they are towing many tens of millions of dollars of in-sea equipment behind the vessel. These seismic ‘spreads’ consisting of long hydrophone and accelerometer sensor streamers which are kept pulled-out wide behind the ship by so-called deflectors which require a minimum water speed of around 1.5 knots to function, and usually operate at between 4 and 5 knots vessel speed. A loss of propulsion could result in collapse, and potentially a total loss of the in-sea gear and weeks, if not months, out of production.

100% uptime is a fundamental requirement for the main maritime systems of propulsion and steering, just as it is with aircraft in the airline industry.

Not All Breakdowns are Attributable to Technical Defects

During 2010, in a relatively buoyant seismic market, any single day out of production for a vessel could mean substantial opportunity losses, and this triggered some deeper analysis of a number of apparently unconnected, unscheduled maritime breakdowns. There was no obvious link between breakdowns, although it often involved the running and maintenance of the main machinery, so PGS engaged maritime consultants Propel to dig deeper into the available data to see if they could find a link, and potentially a weakness in the technical systems. That analysis led Propel to the hypothesis that the failures, although technical in nature, were more than likely due to decisions, and more importantly, to the attitudes of the personnel responsible for operating and maintaining the equipment. A confidential employee survey on what Propel call ‘cultural maturity’ confirmed the hypothesis and highlighted areas of the seismic operational structure that created these attitudes and behaviors.

Circumstances that could be seen as barriers to a robust and optimized operation included:

  • Outsourced maritime technical management on some vessels, where the maritime management company shared no contractual consequences of the losses in performance.
  • Highly compartmentalized (silo) structures both between maritime and seismic operations
  • Conflicting goals between different functions and responsibilities were not being managed for the overall or long-term best outcome (the loudest voice wins!)
  • Planning of operations was, in general, short-term, with a high bias towards lagging indicators and a focus on collecting data on the past performance.

With these insights, PGS embarked on a program that would, over the subsequent five years, change both the onboard management processes and the onshore management structure, and the communication and decision-making processes.

Development of TRCF (Total Recordable Case Frequency) over the last 9 years clearly showing a reduction in incidents and a step-change in HSEQ performance.
Development of TRCF (Total Recordable Case Frequency) over the last 9 years shows a clear reduction in incidents and a step-change in HSEQ performance

One Culture – Breaking Down Traditional Barriers

Highest of the priorities of the program was to dissolve and ultimately remove the traditional work-practice barriers between the vessels’ maritime and seismic operations, and for this reason the participants in the early workshops chose the banner ‘One Vessel: One Culture’, abbreviated to ‘One Culture’ to be the slogan for the rollout. The use of the term One Culture emphasizes that culture alludes to ‘the way we do things around here’, and is not referring to formal documented policies, procedures or standards.

Practical steps to achieving a cultural shift to move towards a more collaborative working mindset started with the formalization of a number of team constructs that would define and give a clear identity to groups of individuals who should collaborate, clearly stating their responsibility, accountability, and authority. These teams were defined as:

  • For each vessel, the officers and seismic department chiefs form “The Onboard Management Team” (OBMT) and the interface between the onshore and offshore management form the “Vessel Management Team” ( VMT)
  • The “Senior Vessel Management Team” (SVMT) manages fleet-wide and more significant issues
  • The highest level interface between the main internal line-organizations is the ‘VP Team’, comprising the heads of the main line-organizations represented offshore.

The most crucial interface meeting between the vessel and onshore management was guided by a prescribed agenda ensuring a forward-looking and risk-focused approach. This helped move on from the old ways of prioritizing actions based on the ‘here and now,’ and shifts the focus to those events in the future for which planning could reduce the risk to performance, safety or project timeline.

So far so good, yet the structure isn’t everything. Any team construct is just an idea unless the members of that team share an intrinsic camaraderie and practiced rules of engagement.

Simulators: Practice Makes Perfect

PGS (in collaboration with Kongsberg and the University of South-Eastern Norway (USN)) have been running courses using purpose-built simulators to train and raise the bar on operational competence. The approach taken by PGS to develop inter-personal competencies was to utilize the very same simulator infrastructure and facilities with a different agenda.

The simulation includes interactions between several vessels on the seismic operation. Here a support vessel passes the Ramform and is manned by a team in a second bridge simulator.
The simulation includes interactions between several vessels on the seismic operation. Here a support vessel passes the Ramform and is manned by a team in a second bridge simulator

Back Deck and Maritime Simulators

The simulators were originally built at the university to replicate the seismic ‘back-deck’, bridge and engine control room of the unique Ramform seismic vessels. Crews could realistically perform tasks in the high-fidelity simulator such as deploying and recovering seismic streamers, and dealing with problems should a piece of hardware fail in the water. Similarly, crises such as tangling of the streamers could be simulated, and the crews experiment and learn the best practices established across the fleet.

During the last six years, 35 courses, covering 96% of the relevant crew, have achieved a technical competence level that is unrivaled in the current seismic industry. This is reflected in reduced technical downtime and an improved asset life of the towed equipment. This, in turn, delivers a faster and more reliable service to the customer, with improved quality and operational robustness.

Maritime officers within PGS and our key contractors have trained how to manage critical tasks such as in-line offshore bunkering (seismic vessels cannot stop to take on fuel during a project), while the support vessel crews contracted by PGS have also been able to run simulations of their support function before entering the field.

PGS Maritime Technology Advisor, Einar Nielsen, explains the workings of the Ramform Bridge Simulator to Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon.
PGS Maritime Technology Advisor, Einar Nielsen, explains the workings of the Ramform Bridge Simulator to Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon

Focus on Communications

With the above foundations of technical competence training in place, and using the principles of CRM (Crew Resource Management) and BRM (Bridge Resource Management), PGS and the University of South-Eastern Norway have developed a course to focus almost exclusively on the communication competencies needed for a high-performing team. The three-day intensive course for the Onboard Management Teams (OBMT) called ‘OBMT Critical Situation Training’ is pitched to encourage these managers to practice and experiment working together across the traditional functional silos in a safe environment (‘safe’ meaning there is no risk to the vessel or seismic equipment). The course also includes the contracted support-vessel crew to integrate them into the overall operation. The One Culture concept aims to improve the coordination and integration between the bridge and back deck to mitigate incidents and better manage them should they occur. This approach is known as Marine Resource Management (MRM).

The course aim is primarily to allow the onboard management to experience operations in critical situations within the onboard management team. The application of appropriate procedures and best practices for equipment deployment/recovery and HSEQ procedures to use in critical situations and how to execute them is, therefore, an integral part. The sessions in the simulator are scenario-based, using familiar and realistic situations, allowing the participants to discover firsthand what optimal performance can be like for interaction between the control room, back deck, engine room and bridge during operations, and specifically, during a crisis. This provides the team with a competence that would otherwise only be tested during a real incident. Each course is compiled using interchangeable simulator modules. Each scenario, developed together with USN starts with a briefing and ends with a de-brief. The goal is to create a realistic learning arena for the crew who will be making the decisions in the field.

In addition to practical simulator sessions, classroom group work allows the team members to reflect upon what a functioning OBMT looks like, what it is intended to achieve, and which areas require focus to develop the team.

Simulated and real back-deck and towed equipment. The simulator provides a high-fidelity learning environment
Simulated and real back-deck and towed equipment. The simulator provides a high-fidelity learning environment.

Concrete Benefits from Investing in People

The investment in this training has been considerable: simulator infrastructure, staff from USN, travel, and overtime for the participating crew, management from PGS being present at various parts of the course, and so on. The competence gains, however, are significant. Competency in teamwork and interaction, and competence in working in stressful situations, should they occur, means the crew are equipped to manage the scenario by understanding the communication processes. It has delivered clear and measurable cost savings. From 2010, PGS technical downtime for combined maritime and seismic operations has reduced by up to 50%, significant incidents have been reduced by 70%, and insurance claims and the severity of incidents have been reduced to low and sustainable levels not seen before in the seismic industry.

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