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Interview with Koos Smoor, Innovation Lead at KOTUG International, on the importance of long-term vision in safetytech innovation.

13/05/2021

In this interview with Koos Smoor, manager of fleet performance and innovation at KOTUG International, Koos shares his view that competition and the long-term vision are important determining factors in his innovation strategy.

KOTUG is a leading maritime company, offering its innovative towage and maritime related services on a global scale.  Adding value by sustainability-focused innovations, KOTUG provides the complete portfolio based on a combination of long-standing knowledge and advanced technologies. This includes designing, building, chartering and operating new vessels to training people and providing innovative consultancy services.

What sparks your interest in innovation? 

To stay ahead of the competition, we have no choice but to innovate, but it is also part of our mission: Providing sustainable towage and related services to the maritime industry, exceeding clients expectations.

That’s basically why I’m here at Kotug, to innovate, to see where we can be in the long run, and hopefully outsmart the competition. Because if you do the same as the rest, you cannot distinguish yourself.

Adding value to our customers is one of the main inspirations for innovation at Kotug – mainly referring to technical innovations. These innovations cost money, but in the long run you get the returns and above all we add to sustainable operations.

Kotug is a family-owned company with a long-term vision. If you want your business to survive in the long run, at the very basis you must make sure you have good assets that fulfil the rules and the regulations with regards to the environment and working environment of the people. We build modern ships that will last for at least the duration of the contracts we have with our customers – 20 or 30 years.

What innovation trend is sparking your interest right now, whether personally or in your work?

I think environmental innovations are very important, personally, and also for the company. We are looking at different fuels, and different ways to clean up the ships. Our goal is to have a zero-emission ship, zero-emissions to water, air and sound – that is what we have on the horizon. We are already able to deliver green solutions for entire operations, cradle-to-grave.

What is an important development or innovation that you’ve been part of? 

There have been many over the years, but one I’d like to mention that has direct impact on safety, is remote-control technology for our tugboats.

Another we worked on with the Safetytech Accelerator was a heat-recovery project – metal heat recovery and heat storage systems. This vapour gas detection project was very difficult and not easy to match, but we made progress there.

A third I’m quite proud of is a hybrid boat developed from scrap. In 2011 we were the first in Europe to have a fully closed hybrid deck.

What do you see as the main blockers and enablers to innovation? 

There are always blockers to innovation, but luckily they are not always showstoppers.

For example, a new technology we’re exploring is remote inspection of tugs – so if you need to do an inspection on the other side of the world, the crew can stay safely in the office and do the whole inspection remotely.  This has been great because in corona-times it is obviously difficult to travel. However the blocker can be cultural, because some team members feel that they need to complete the inspection physically, otherwise they cannot confirm it’s okay.

But over time as people start to trust the new technology their attitudes change, for example as internet improves and the technology improves, then we are able to do these inspections remotely.

A typical blocker is the money involved. Unfortunately there is no getting around the fact that you have to invest before you know if it works, which can be a risk. Sometimes we invest in something and it doesn’t work for unforeseen reasons. But this is a risk that comes with the territory of innovation.

Showing the positive results of your innovation can be great enablers. If you can demonstrate improvements in sustainability and a more ‘green’ image – it’s great for the value proposition and the reputation of the company. If you can show travel efficiencies, improvements in safety, returns on investment, then these are definitely enablers for innovation.

You mentioned remote control technology earlier, what are the main benefits of this? 

One of the main benefits is that you can save money on people travelling to distant countries.

A couple of examples – we have a tugboat at a port in Africa where there is only a ship coming in every 2 weeks. But the tug is there fully manned, all the time. So we foresee a time when the maintenance crew may be onboard the tug, but the captain can log in from Rotterdam and manoeuvre it when necessary. It’s relatively simple to push a ship against the quayside for example. Technically it has been proven but there are still a lot of considerations, rules and regulations before this can be implemented.

In your view, what are important qualities of leaders in innovation?

Persistence and open-mindedness are important. Because they have to be ready to change the culture, so a different way of thinking is required. It also helps if you can be persuasive.

If you had any advice for an innovation leader, especially in a safety-related innovation, what advice would you give them to take their innovation forward? 

Persistence is key. Do as much as research and development as possible beforehand. Try to get people on your side, and involve those who work directly with the technology. Get buy-in from the board and those above you.

It’s essential that the people who will be working with the innovation, in our case on the ships, buy in first. For example in the case of a hybrid deck, if the people onboard are not well-instructed and there is a crew change, then your innovation is not used. It needs to be something that people on-deck will actually use.

Sometimes it happens that someone comes up with an idea, everyone likes it and we get the budget, and we do it. But the people that have to work with it on a daily basis have a completely different point of view, and then the whole innovation fails. This is the way many innovations fail. It is a question of culture and process.

Information-sharing is essential. It’s very important that everybody understands what you are doing. If you are an innovation leader at a company you are not involved in daily operations. Health and safety are not always involved in daily operations. If you don’t ensure that everybody understands what you’re doing, then it’s difficult to introduce a new innovation because the users are not onboard. Culture can again make things difficult. If you can explain to everyone what you’re doing, what are the benefits and reasons for change – then people may be willing to cooperate and do new things.

And how did you manage to jump some of these cultural hurdles at Kotug? 

First of all our company encourages the innovation attitude as we have done over decades, innovation is in the DNA of KOTUG since the start in 1911, so as a matter of fact there are no cultural hurdles. It is however important to share ideas and take your colleagues with you. Therefore I share information, do presentations and workshops, with people who are involved and even with many who are not involved. I have been known to introduce something new by inviting the whole office for a session. I take the opportunity to explain the innovation and reasons for innovation. I also keep  the board up to speed on any innovations we’re working on. It’s best if everyone understands what you do, that the right people can input and buy-in. I want people to come to me if they have new ideas, and to harness their enthusiasm. Keeping people informed is a key way to do this.

Do you have any innovation leaders that you look up to, that you are inspired by? 

I often look at the lessons learned by companies.

I observe that many times companies take a short-term view. In our case, if you look at your earnings and projects on a four-year basis, you can make your tugs fit for service. After four years you can utilize the tugs somewhere else with older technology. If you were to take a longer-term view with feasible returns on investments, and you look further than four years, you can use the tugs for other businesses. It could be worth the effort of getting more sustainable technology which will last longer. In some cases, the lifetime of these boats is much longer, and more equipped for the future. You can rebuild and they will be ready for new technologies and a long-term vision.

So overall I try to keep an eye on the long-term view, and to get ideas by seeing where others might be going wrong – this is where I get ideas for innovation.

Thanks Koos for an insightful conversation. 

Stay tuned for further interviews with innovation leaders.

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