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Communicate Now, Perfect the Tools Later

There are far too many surprises in container shipping. The last quarter of 2018 was huge. Pre-tariff inventory buildup has stressed carriers, ports, truckers, chassis pools, and DC operators. We’ve seen a stream of “extra loaders”, vessels inserted into a rotation to add short-term capacity. Extra loaders ease congestion at Asian ports by moving it to U.S. ports.

This unforeseen pressure has left everyone involved coping, instead of managing. We may or may not be able to manage what we can’t measure, but we definitely can’t manage what we don’t even know about.

Terminal operators see vessels arriving off schedule and “random” truck arrivals, while truckers see ad hoc changes to terminal operations, cut off times, and empty return rules. Everyone involved, from hostler drivers to carrier CEOs, can turn in a good performance when given a chance to plan and execute, but things break down under feast-and famine volume fluctuations and pervasive uncertainty.

Appointment systems are becoming common, although there are a lot of growing pains. An appointment is an implicit contract between trucker and terminal to conduct a specific transaction at a specific time. That’s a key starting point, allowing each party to plan more and cope less.

Port communications ports are coming, and ideally they should let everyone see what is happening, and what will happen, so everyone can plan on a common basis. Block chain is over-hyped; while it may secure the information we have, it will not make any new information available.

There are already plenty of communication tools out there. Websites, emails, texts, twitter, phones, and faxes may be awkward or downright archaic, but they work if used intelligently.

Surprises were fine on Christmas morning, but not under the crane or at the terminal gate. How much chaos are we willing to endure while we wait for the perfect communications tool? Better communication is not the answer to every problem but telling each other what we are trying to do and when will reduce the number of unwelcome surprises. Don’t expect the other guys to turn their operations upside down for you, but give them a chance to plan for your needs as you plan for theirs.

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