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March 10, 2021

Theseus’ ship may have never actually sailed, but it captures one of shipbuilding’s oldest realities – change management. The planks making up those early wooden vessels were subject to the cruelty of time, and those planks – from the hull and decks – were constantly being replaced. The organic nature of the materials in use also meant that no two ships were the same.

These days, naval and commercial shipbuilding no longer relies on wood, but the need to work around change remains one of the industry’s toughest challenges, and sister ships can still differ dramatically. Change is such a problem that change orders account for 46% of schedule slips, more than any other cause. For naval shipbuilders, the challenge is compounded further by the sheer amount of change and requirements that need to be coordinated.

Change is unavoidable in shipbuilding, but the defense shipbuilders that understand the biggest risks that come from change requests, the importance of information, and how to manage the two will come out ahead.

Role of Information in Change Management

Navy or defense projects, as a rule, require more changes than commercial projects. The specific reasons vary, but most often, it comes down to the need to implement the latest technology into follow-on ships of the same class. This technology is cutting or bleeding edge, and there is never a straightforward plug-and-play installation. However, it is not the scale or complexity of a change that poses the biggest challenge. It’s how the information associated with it interacts with the entire shipyard.

The one common thread across every change in a project, no matter if it affects one or multiple hulls, comes from a customer request or equipment modification, or any other reason, is that it either is because of new information or results in new information. Even if a change is not implemented, understanding the cost-benefit behind it means examining the potential impacts to the organization and project by using the data and information at hand.

As an illustration of the consequences of missing information, information missing during detailed design results in drawings delivered with caveats to meet a specific deadline and fit the construction schedule. When the information finally makes it downstream, the designer uses it to initiate a change or create a new revision of the drawing. Now, everything that relies on the drawing needs to be updated accordingly, leading to disruption for planning, scheduling, construction, and even the vessel’s commissioning.

Not All Change Is Equal

With multiple ships, this problem increases exponentially. Apart from coordinating the execution of a change, it becomes necessary to understand the specific state of each vessel at any given time. The result is a lot more tracking and questions that need to be communicated carefully.

A change that affects the first hull in a series affects every follow-on hull, but not necessarily vice-versa. When it is time to apply the change to follow-on hulls, it may end up not being the same change. For example, if the modification is needed in an area that has already been constructed, a quick fix might be the right solution. But if the follow-on ship is still in design, a complete fix might make more sense for that hull. It’s crucial that every department is clear on exactly what needs to be done for each hull at every moment in the project and has the right information to make it happen.

The Role of the Information Platform

An information platform is ultimately responsible for the generation and communication of these changes within a shipyard. In its simplest form, this is using a spreadsheet to manage BOMs and change orders. But the scale of current projects makes this an unfeasible solution. The information platform needs to fit modern shipbuilding realities and needs to be flexible enough to support the infinite combinations of inputs and outputs possible in a shipyard.

We will never escape shipbuilding change entirely. Just as it was a concern in history and pre-history, it will continue to be a challenge in the future within our industry. But a solution to change management in shipbuilding gives everyone a clear and concise view of what needs to be done on each ship and a way to verify their change for every follow-on ship is a leap in the right direction.

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