Fabian Steinmann

The following article was featured in the February issue of Pacific Ports Magazine. To view the digital version of the full issue, please click here.

Over the past decade, resilience has become one of the latest buzzwords in multiple industries. There is a great interest from organizations around the globe to integrate the concept of resilience into their operation. However, what do you have to do to become more resilient? There are multiple ways to increase operational resilience and that is where the challenge lies — Resilience means different things to people. For some, it is a synonym for reliability, robustness, or stability; for others, it is a synonym for flexibility, rebound, or survivability. For me, the concept of resilience combines all of those characteristics and, depending on the context, different features are required. In quiet times, an organization may prioritize reliability to minimise the risk of internal breakdowns but the focus shifts when a disruption occurs, and the priority becomes the recovery of the operation. Resilience can be viewed as the outcome of actions and conditions and is created during various phases of the operation. Instead of thinking of resilience as ONE THING, it might be helpful to break down the concept into various themes.

The first theme that influences the potential for resilience is the System Design. The design of a system describes the setup of the operation and its embedded buffer capacity. For decades, one of the main drivers has been efficiency, and we have gradually removed the system’s slack resources. Most processes were centered around the “Just-In-Time” principle and efficiency was improved, which led to a brittle structure. In a brittle system, small deviations could lead to disruptions, which again could quickly affect other parts of the operation. In addition, due to the high efficiency and limited available buffer capacity, accumulated delays and backlogs in the system can take a long time to be processed. Resilience in that context means the management of production and safety tradeoffs and ensuring sufficient buffer capacity is incorporated. Tradeoffs arise due to finite resources and each organization needs to decide what “sufficient buffer capacity” means for them. A higher utilization of the system may require an investment in resources to closely monitor the processes, immediately spot deviations and respond accordingly. Another key enabler for achieving resilience is having a holistic view on the interconnected nature of port operations. Do we know all of the bottlenecks in our operation and are we aware of all the interfaces with other stakeholders? Bottlenecks could be the number of berths, port cranes or storage space but also custom clearance processes, hinterland connectivity or staff shortage may limit the capacity at a port. The latest IAPH Risk and Resilience Guidelines for Ports includes an extensive list of factors that could affect the operation at a port. Some of the bottlenecks are outside the port’s control and resilience cannot be achieved in isolation. Hence, collaboration and engagement with other stakeholders are vital in achieving resilience across the entire port operation.

Once we have defined the processes, it is of utmost importance to implement an audit system which regularly checks whether the current standards still meet the desired performance. Local adaptations of processes may begin to erode some of the safety margins. The phenomenon has been described as “Practical Drift”. Professor Scott A. Snook first mentioned practical drift as “the slow steady uncoupling of local practice from written procedure” which eventually causes breakdowns in the operation. Resilience in that context means having the ability to identify and counteract those adaptations, ultimately increasing the reliability and stability of the operation. In addition, regular checks can also help identify changes in the environment which could affect the risk profile. Those audits help assess whether existing processes and barriers are sufficient for emerging threats.

The potential for a resilient operation can also be generated through the System Preparedness theme. This theme is concerned with the creation of foresight and taking proactive actions. It requires close monitoring of available information and the ability to translate early signs of danger into safety concerns. An organization is able to anticipate risky situations and prepare for short-term disruptions. The goal is to temporarily increase the buffer capacity in order to handle an expected disruption. The increase in buffer capacity can be achieved by either taking on additional resources or compromising the performance. Expected severe weather may limit the movement within a port or high winds could reduce the maximum height for stacking containers. Adjusting the functioning prior to disturbance achieves a state of readiness and preparedness.

The third theme is System Response. Despite thorough horizon scanning and proactive actions, a system needs to be able to respond to disruptions, especially to unexpected disturbances. Depending on the severity of the disturbance or level of impact on the operation, the response varies. For regular threats or events occurring frequently enough, a port could develop standard response procedures that help contain the failure and continue with the rest of the operation, which follows the principle of robustness. However, for some events, no exact pre-planned response is available and the organization needs to adjust procedures when faced with such a scenario, requiring some level of flexibility. This type of event may have a low probability but potentially catastrophic effects. Resilience in that kind of incident refers to the ability to contain the damage and rebound from the disruption. The response most likely involves multiple stakeholders and an effective governance structure for coordination and communication is essential. Regular training with other organizations strengthens the interface and ensures staff from different parties are used to working together and there is a common workflow understanding. Besides regular and irregular threats, Professor Ron Westrum used “Unexampled Events” as a third category of events. A response to an unexampled event requires an extension of the adaptive capacity to avoid failure. In an event of this category, the organization is trying to avoid losing control and regain some level of stability by shifting to an emergency configuration. In addition, the priority is to restore critical linkages between systems to provide a minimum level of service.

The last of the four resilience themes describes System Change and is linked to bouncing forward and be better prepared for a similar event in the future. Organizations should take the time and reflect on the things that could be improved but also on what worked well to preserve good practices for future events. Learning may include the introduction of new barriers or protocols, changes in procedures, or increasing certain resources. It is vital that learning and updates do not occur in isolation and are shared with other stakeholders as it may influence their way of working. Seemingly improvements to the operation could bring unintended side-effects on different parts of the system. Therefore, a system analysis and risk assessment need to be conducted to ensure a safe implementation of the learning. The System Change theme also includes proactive change that occurs without a disruption taking place. Examples could be the drive for greenhouse gases reduction or long-term adaptation to rising sea levels.

As this short article showed, resilience is a multi-facet concept and the lack of a clear definition may confuse people. However, by breaking down it into themes, and thinking in terms of System Design, System Preparedness, System Response, and System Change, resilience will hopefully become a useful concept. Various tools and principles can support organizations to create the potential for resilience through those four themes. If you have an interest in the subject and want to discuss further, please contact me at f.steinmann@cranfield.ac.uk.