'You cannot solve a problem just by sending an e-mail'

This article is a translation of the original Dutch article 'Door een e-mail te versturen, heb je nog geen probleem opgelost', published by the Belgian newspaper 'De Tijd' in 'De Wereldspelers', an initiative of Tijd Connect, supported by Jan De Nul Group. Click to read the Dutch article online.


‘You cannot solve a problem just by sending an e-mail’

The bigger a company gets, the higher the risk of red tape. Jan De Nul Group worked out a solution for this, which may seem simple at first but is much more challenging in reality. ‘Our people just need to talk more to one another.’

Imagine-Think-Act’, or in short ITA. That is the name of the programme used by Jan De Nul since last year to focus on efficiency and control the risks resulting from its activities. “All in all nothing new or not completely new anyway”, says Sander Vandenberghe, ITA project manager with the dredging and construction company. “Imagining, thinking and acting are rooted in our basic DNA. It’s what made this company so successful. With the Imagine-Think-Act programme, we’ve just made it a bit more formal.”

Why was this necessary? “Our strong growth has made it much more difficult to efficiently share information”, explains managing director Jan Pieter De Nul. “As soon as you’ve reached a certain size, problems arise that are similar for all companies. For instance, it is much more difficult to learn from experience. In a small company, a foreman still knows how something was done two years ago and whether it worked at the time or not. In a large company, there is a risk that the same mistakes are made time and again because people do not talk enough about them. Besides, you should not assume that Imagine-Think-Act is all about safety. It is intended to prevent stupidities and become more efficient. Safety is a positive by-product.”

Obviously, sharing information does not become easier when you’re a global player. Jan Pieter De Nul: “If you have only one factory and something happens, almost everyone knows this within a day. Our people are spread all over the world. Over the last fifteen years, we have worked in 107 countries. If today something happens with us in Australia, they won’t know this the next day in South America when starting there with a similar job. However, we could and should learn from such experiences.”

That is the whole idea behind Image-Think-Act: understanding and controlling risks through a better communication. “That necessity has only increased in recent years”, explains Mieke Fordeyn, Director of the International Division. “In the offshore business, for instance, customer requirements are different than for our traditional activities. Typical of this industry is that first, before starting with the actual execution, everything is written down in procedures. This means that everyone has already considered very carefully what they will have to do, what the potential risks are and how these can be limited or – better still – avoided.”

Clear arrangements

“It is important to know that we have much confidence in the experienced managers of our vessels and projects across the world,” emphasises Vandeberghe. “At Jan De Nul, we expect that in everything that you do and for every decision that you take, you always imagine first, then think and only then act. We also underline the importance of clear arrangements and transparent communication. When you ask who is the main person responsible for a hazardous situation and two people put their hand up, you clearly have a problem.”

“If people have properly consulted on what should be done and if they know how elsewhere in the world a similar problem was solved, you know you will be safe”, explains Jan Pieter De Nul. “Because then you know immediately what the risks are and everyone is also aware of them. This results in less accidents. Due to our growth and the huge distances between our sites, we kind of lost that communication a bit. So that is our main challenge: keeping the experience alive.”

“This requires a commitment throughout all levels of the company,” argues Fordeyn. “Managers from the head office should visit our project sites more frequently and talk with on-site people about the occupational hazards, focus on what is really important at that time and – together – try to find solutions for the challenges of every assignment. All our employees should know that they can always turn to the head office for a solution.”

“A young employee who has had four weeks of training and is then sent abroad, will have doubts”, illustrates Jan Pieter De Nul the importance of clear arrangements. “Whom can he turn to for questions? In a small company, a project manager knows exactly whom he should call for advice. How did this go in the past, what works and what doesn’t? If this doesn’t go well, accidents are bound to happen. When you ask such a guy ‘So, why don’t you ask?’, it appears that he didn’t know whom he could turn to.”

Better communication

Imagine-Think-Act has nothing to do with extra paper work”, emphasises Yves Bosteels, director of the brand new Knowledge, Process and Innovation department of Jan De Nul. “It is about better communication in both directions. Managers and workers must be able to speak to one another about risks and, more importantly still, they must be willing to be spoken to about them.”

He gives the example of the warehouse in Zelzate that he visited recently. “There, employees were unpacking large cutter teeth from big drums in order to re-pack them for transport. They told me that the quality of the edges of these drums varies quite considerably and let that now be the place where the drum is hooked on. So, because when moving the drum the hook sometimes comes off the drum and the load may fall onto the ground, they always went to stand a bit further. I would never have read that in a report. Such things you only come to know by asking.”

Jan Pieter De Nul nods his assent. “The problem is that we begin to live in a paper world and have stopped thinking. I always say: when starting a job, you should already be able to see it in your head how you will do it. Then you will realise what is and what isn’t possible because it is too dangerous or too expensive. People without practical experience will not be able to do this and they will not be able to calculate the cost of things either.”

Vandenberghe joins the conversation: “In these times of e-mail and procedures, we sometimes forget how important it is to consult with one another face-to-face. That this still works best can be clearly seen on smoothly operating vessels. During a morning meeting where everyone is present, all tasks are divided in less than ten minutes and they are clear to everyone. If face-to-face is not possible, it is better to pick up the phone and address the subject than to send a mail.”

Jan Pieter De Nul says he can still get terribly frustrated about the e-mail and box-ticking culture that is so typical of large companies, including – sad to say – his own. “For instance: someone sends an e-mail for asking a question to a colleague who is sitting only ten metres away from him and, subsequently, receives a formal answer. But if he would stop by, he might be asked “why do you ask this” or “how do you see that?”, so that knowledge and experiences are shared. The problem with e-mail is that it “dehumanises” problems. But, honestly, pressing the Send button will not solve the issues. That is how misunderstandings arise because without genuine interaction nobody recognises them as such.”

“An e-mail should in many cases just be a summary of a conversation”, adds Julie De Nul, daughter of Jan Pieter. “First, you call someone for making proper arrangements. Then, you send a mail listing what everyone must do.”

“Putting an e-mail on a par with a phone conversation may be dangerous: things are noted down on paper that should not be there in the first place because they represent a commitment for the company”, continues her father. “For instance: recently, we received a product that may well be defective. But the site supervisor had already congratulated the supplier for its product. What will happen, do you think, when later on you start complaining about that delivery? Come on!”