Gearhead: And The Survey Says... Nothing

Far too many professionals in the marine industry are guilty of failing to provide to customers intelligible, plainspoken language that supports their observations, analyses and reports.
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Editor's note: Steve D’Antonio is the former technical editor of PassageMaker magazine.

“Steve, attached please find the reports from the engine survey and oil analysis, I hope they are more intelligible to you than they are to me, because I have no idea how to read them.” That line, from a client whose vessel’s engines were recently surveyed by two factory-trained mechanics, expresses a small element of frustration that echoes an observation of mine.

Far too many professionals in the marine industry are guilty of failing to provide to customers intelligible, plainspoken language that supports their observations, analyses and reports. In my work as a consultant for those buying boats or having them built, I’m subject to this all-too-frustrating onslaught of information that is nearly useless to those receiving it. I often act in the capacity of translator, or worse, the one who identifies errors.

 Engine instrumentation, especially that used on electronically controlled engines, can be a wellspring of information, from percentage of load to fuel restriction. However, there’s no substitute for other tests, such as exhaust back pressure, which require the use of a manometer that is temporarily plumbed to the exhaust system.

Engine instrumentation, especially that used on electronically controlled engines, can be a wellspring of information, from percentage of load to fuel restriction. However, there’s no substitute for other tests, such as exhaust back pressure, which require the use of a manometer that is temporarily plumbed to the exhaust system.

I was guilty of this until an engineer from the Smithsonian Institution enlightened me several years ago. He had retained me to carry out a series of inspections and recommendations for the Institution’s fleet of vessels. After submitting the first draft of my report to him, he responded saying, “This looks good, lots of detailed info, however, it needs an executive summary.”

At first I balked. An executive summary? Why? Everything the reader needs to know is contained within the report.

After a conversation with him, however, I realized he was right. Among other things, if the report was not easily understood by those who had commissioned it, likely I would not be retained again in the future, and those who can’t understand raw reports are prone to asking questions; questions I would only be forced to spend valuable time answering later.

An executive summary, a synopsis and interpretation of the findings that is capsulized and designed specifically for those whose time is precious, who may be unable or disinclined to read a detailed report that is laced with the technical argot of the marine trades, should be an essential element of the product produced by a professional.

Excluding such a summary invites misunderstanding, frustration or a failure to act where action is the desired intent. You should, therefore, make your expectations clear regarding this critical information in advance of retaining any professional to prepare a report.

That client note, accompanied by the oil analysis and engine survey reports, was a glaring example of this transgression. The summary “report” from the engine dealer was literally a mass of columns of numbers, disgorged directly from the engine’s ECU, which represented various engine readings, temperatures, pressures, etc.

What it lacked was a simple paragraph or even a single sentence that said something along the lines of“all of the readings obtained on the sea trial were within the engine manufacturer’s specifications; no action is required or recommended,” or “highlighted observations fall outside the manufacturer’s specifications, the following actions are recommended.”

The note included no personal observations from the two mechanics. Were there any defects? Was anything out of the ordinary? Were any changes or upgrades recommended?

My observations for the engines alone included 11 citations, at least three of which could be deemed critical: a loose motor mount (which affected alignment and thus transmission and shaft wear), exposed block heater wiring (an electrocution risk) and exhaust riser temperatures that were well above the limit established by ABYC standards (a potential burn and fire hazard).

If this were an exception, I wouldn’t bother writing this column, but it’s the norm. Customers who pay for an analysis from an expert, particularly a factory-trained dealer or technician, are entitled to the benefit of their training and experience, rather than checked boxes.

Particularly where engine surveys are carried out, I expect factory-trained mechanics to identify any details that violate the engine manufacturer’s installation guidelines (you should use those words when calling on dealers to review installations, from watermakers to engines). After all, who is or should be better qualified to provide such observations? Oil analysis reports also fall squarely into this category.

 While carrying out engine surveys, savvy mechanics should be able to look beyond the engine manufacturer’s checklist and spot defects and impending failures.

While carrying out engine surveys, savvy mechanics should be able to look beyond the engine manufacturer’s checklist and spot defects and impending failures.

To some extent we can blame the labs for the lack of detail or a summary understandable to boat owners or buyers or even a professional. Most labs don’t cater to laypeople, making it the responsibility of those taking the samples and sending them out to either choose a lab that does provide useful summaries with reports (they do exist, see Gearhead, PassageMaker, March ’13) or they should be prepared to interpret the results for the customer.

Unless you count the invoice, the oil analysis report in the above case was sent to the customer sans detail or explanation. When I read it I immediately noticed two glaring flaws. First, the “unit time” and “lube time” hours were erroneously shown as zero, which essentially told the lab that this was new, unused equipment. Of course that wasn’t true; this was a used vessel with over 800 hours on the clock.

Not all problems and defects surrounding engine operation or installation are obvious, and many are only indirectly related to the engine.

Not all problems and defects surrounding engine operation or installation are obvious, and many are only indirectly related to the engine.

The second flaw involved the lab itself, which indicated that all results were “normal.” That, however, also represented what should have been an unmistakable signal that something was amiss. How could “new” zero-hour oil contain any contaminants, copper, aluminum, iron, sodium, some in appreciable quantities, as these samples invariably did?Had the analysis reports been reviewed by a professional in preparation for drafting the executive summary, these errors would have been identified before they reached my eyes.

Ultimately, failure to provide executive summaries is a result of poor training and the ability to get away with it—if no one balks and the phone keeps ringing, why make a change? Those who do provide such summaries, on the other hand, exhibit the sort of professionalism many boat owners and buyers expect, or at least hope for, while enjoying greater customer loyalty and the resultant financial reward. 

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