Communicating Asian Style: Dealing with a dozen languages

This article is about the topic of better managing projects by empowering the people on the job with a simple tool to help them talk to each other.

We outline an ultra low cost technique which helps eliminate double work, improves morale and reduces shipyard deaths and accidents.

One of the barriers to safe and efficient work in Asian yards is communication. For example, an Asian yard could easily have native speakers of ten to twenty languages working as a team to complete a particular task. Many or most of whom speak English badly or not at all. This article shows a way to get everybody on the job speaking the same language, using a simple technique that becomes obvious after you see it used.

Every language has nouns and every marine project has it’s own unique suite of nouns, so the simple way to get everybody on the project talking the same language is to simply equip everybody on the job with the same set of names to call things.

Many of the key people helping plan the daily work are engineers in one form or another. For some reason, too many young engineers lack the ability to communicate clearly. (Is that why they became engineers in the first place?) Projects end up depending on a layer of mid level supervisors (native speakers of one language), whose job it is to regularly visit the rarified air of the project office to download and decipher (try to understand) the obtuse wishes of the engineers (native speakers of several other languages) and carry these wishes, in the form of work plans to the lower classes at the workface; (native speakers of yet more languages but communicating with each other in Indonesian).

Note that I use the derogatory terms “lower classes” and “yard coolies” to highlight a snobbish sometimes  racist attitude of the Gucci shoes clean fingernails brigade sometimes found in project offices, towards those who actually make the project happen, the artisan workers. In fact, the best run projects find and use ways to directly empower the workers with information about the purpose of their work. Giving all the nouns on the project a name is one simple people technique which helps achieve this.

In the midst of all this room for confusion and misunderstanding, is the larger problem that nobody seems to know what anything is called. The people on the project don’t know the name of the space they are in, technicians may or may not know the names of individual machines or systems, nor the names of the machine components to which the hapless workers are expected to attach a complex array of pipes, wires, levers, bells and whistles.

There is a simple solution to this: give the most junior,  most inarticulate engineer an assignment to take a couple of workers and go around the job sticking name labels on every doorway, hatch, vent, manhole, tank, pipe, junction box, pump, valve, damper, vent, engine, hydraulic unit, winch, gearbox, tank, AHU, condenser, filter housing, staircase, bench, cable bundle, pressure vessel, machine and room. Pipe labels should state in English what is inside the pipe and critical info such as high temperature or pressure. On every bulkhead, stick the name of the space that is on the other side of that bulkhead. Stick arrows showing the way out of internal spaces, which way liquid flows inside pipes and the direction of air or gasses inside ducts. Don’t “assume” that anybody knows anything.

The labels can be printed on  black lettering on white A4 paper, which are trimmed and plastic laminated. Use BIG lettering; paper is cheap. You want people to be able to read labels from a few meters distance in poor light.  Interior space labels can be posted using double sided tape, exterior labels are best afixed with yellow contact cement.

Near the end of the job, these temporary project labels can be replaced with smaller official permanent ID tags.

Giving single item on the project a name empowers everybody, from bottom to top, to express themselves more clearly and with confidence. You will be amazed by the improvement in self esteem of your project team members; as you have just given the native speakers of 20 languages their own common language with which they can better discuss the project.

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