Culture & Competency

Canal Tug Boats Ring Bells – A Collaboration Failure?

In his Learning TRENDS newsletter from November 2010, Elliott Masie shares the following story about tug boats on the Panama Canal:

I visited the Panama Canal this week for the first time in 20 years. One big learning lesson happened while taking a 1/2 day transit of this amazing engineering site linking the Pacific to the Atlantic.

As each of the huge boats moves through the locks, the clearances are tight. So, a special pilot boards the ship, taking over control from the captain. As they move into a lock, there are electric rail tugs on either side of the canal with steel cables to keep the boat in the middle of the canal. Some have only 6” clearance. The drivers of these tugs receive precise instructions to move forward or tighten the cable from the pilot.

They recently upgraded the tugs and added two-way radios between the tugs (4 to 8 per boat) and the pilot to increase communication. But, it actually led to more scrapes of the boats against the walls and a much slower transit time. It turned out that the tug boat drivers were second guessing the pilot and arguing about the “commands”. After much consideration, the two-way radios were replaced by one way radios and they returned to an old fashioned bell system. After each command is radioed from the ship to the tug drivers, they confirm that they have received and are executing the command by ringing a bell on the tug.

While we all love collaboration, some situations call for trust in command and control.

My Comments
1. With respect to Elliott’s conclusion in principle, I don’t disagree. Clear communication, clear direction, a clear set of goals and objectives – are all essential.

2. With respect to this specific instance, I question why two-way radios were added, and what the before-the-fact theory was about the added collaborative benefit of doing so. In other words, were the two-way radios added because (a) they were new cool technology, or (b) they were expected to make a significant decrease in the error rate – that being the number of times ships hit the sides? If the former, well, d’oh! If the latter, we would need to see the logical reasoning as to why a performance improvement was expected.

3. In extending Elliott’s general principle, I would add collaboration is not a silver bullet. It’s not the answer to all problems. While as a strategy and capability it can play a specific role across a broad range of situations, it will never play a specific role across every situation. That is, use with careful thought!

4. Thanks to Eric Mack for alerting me to this article.

Categories: Culture & Competency

4 replies »

  1. Very interesting, but the example (and I have seen it for real, being an ex sailor) is not a failure of collaboration, but a failure of communication.
    Using the two way radio to argue with the pilot (transmitting when you should be receiving – I also used to be a radio operator!)could even be described as a failure of policies, procedures and training as applied to communications between the parties. However they were all still working towards the same goal, and thus collaborating.

  2. Yay – comments work for me again ! First time I have managed to successfully post a comment in ages – what ever you fixed / changed Michael – thank you 🙂