January 22, 2021, 10:11 am

The Mining Industry needs Thinkers, not just Doers

Written by: Sandy Dunn - Managing Director, Assetivity | December, 2020

In Austmine's Latest eBook: Securing Mining's Future Workforce, our Managing Director Sandy Dunn encourages Mining Companies to engage more thinkers.

The Mining industry has a formidable reputation for getting things done, despite all the obstacles that get in the way. Perhaps it is due to the geographical isolation associated with mine sites, but miners are a resourceful bunch who almost always find a way to succeed, despite limited support.

COVID-19 – Challenge or Opportunity?

The situation experienced with COVID-19 is a great example of the mining industry’s resourcefulness. Despite all the potential health issues associated with FIFO rosters, staff working in close vicinity in remote mining camps, and despite the ever-increasing regulatory requirements affecting travel, quarantine and social distancing, most mining companies have adapted rapidly and implemented changes which have allowed them to continue to operate successfully. Working rosters have changed, essential activities have been identified and prioritised, non-essential activities have been deferred, working practices have changed, catering practices have changed.

But what a pity that it has taken an externally induced crisis to initiate these changes.

Despite pockets of isolated large-scale innovation (think “Mines of the Future”, autonomous trucks and trains), the mining industry is slow to implementing innovation as a core aspect of its day-to-day culture. Every day, many workers in the mining industry simply do what they have to do. Too few ask “how can I make things better today?”. Even fewer ask “how does what I do help my organisation to succeed”. The reality is that many in the mining industry are comfortable in the routine of a day to day existence, and as a result, improvement opportunities are whizzing by at a great rate. Where mining companies do have improvement initiatives (often driven by large centralised engineering and business improvement teams), these initiatives are often poorly coordinated and the connections between these initiatives and measurable improvements in organisational performance are not clear or missing.

The “reset” brought about by COVID-19 creates an enormous opportunity for mining organisations to change this reality. Now is the time to think differently, to embrace change and reinvent innovation and improvement practices. But this will only happen if we empower and enable the workforce to be innovative and equip them with the skills to do so.

How do we empower our workforce to be more innovative?

There are several elements that must be present for an innovation culture to be present. These include:

A clear understanding of the business’s objectives at all levels

By objectives, we mean the “results to be achieved”, and like all good objectives, these have to be SMART – Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.  Too often within mining organisations, these requirements are not met.  Instead of specific targets, “objectives” are cloaked in woolly language such as “maximise value to shareholders” or “achieve first-quartile cost performance”. Furthermore, the gaps (current or forecast) between current and desired levels of performance (as expressed by the objectives) are also not clearly articulated.  Objectives and performance gaps are not cascaded down through the organisation to lower level objectives. As a result, members of the organisation are unable to understand what improvement priorities they should be working on in order to bridge those gaps.  The absence of specific, measurable targets also inhibits their capability to assess whether planned improvement initiatives will result in expected levels of performance being achieved.

ISO 55001:2014, the international standard for Asset Management, provides a solid framework for establishing and communicating SMART objectives throughout the organisation, and for developing and coordinating plans to address identified performance gaps.  While some mining companies have started to consider aligning with ISO 55001, the rate of takeup is much slower than in other industries, and there is stakeholder value being left on the table as a result. 

A more considered approach to risk

The mining industry is highly risk averse.  In some cases this is appropriate; mining is a potentially hazardous industry.  However, this aversion to risk, accompanied by a strong desire for centralised control in order to manage this risk, works to discourage improvement initiatives at lower levels in the organisation.  People are, in general, naturally inquisitive and innovative, but they quickly realise that they shouldn’t waste their time trying to improve things when their ideas and suggestion fall on deaf ears or are actively discouraged.

ISO 55001 expressly requires organisations to assess and manage risks (in combination with costs and benefits) at all levels within their organisation.  A more formal and considered approach to risk management would recognise that for many of these shopfloor initiatives, the potential benefits far outweigh the potential risks and costs, and allow these to proceed, with suitable risk controls in place.

Establish improvement processes that engage workers at all levels

For too many mining organisations, improvement is considered to be something that is done by “head office” or “management”.  It is also considered as something that is done to shopfloor workers rather than being done with them.

Yet often the information needed to make sensible, implementable improvements exists within the heads of those with their hands on the equipment – operators and maintainers, and their direct supervisors.  Effective innovation processes tap into this knowledge and use it in a focused, guided way to make improvements.  There are many examples of tools and approaches that can deliver excellent results if used in this manner – amongst them Reliability Centred Maintenance, PM Optimisation and Root Cause Analysis.  Establishing and using these tools and approaches should really be embedded as part of “business as usual” if organisations want to establish a culture of improvement and innovation.  The unfortunate reality is that frequently these tools are seen as being either the remit of the Engineering department or are used sporadically in response to one-off events or projects, rather than systematically and continually. 

Equip the Workforce with the Required Competences

Establishing processes that facilitate innovation are only effective if those involved in the processes have the competence to apply those processes efficiently and effectively.  A key starting point is to understand who within your organisation is involved in business improvement and the nature of that involvement.  For example, when it comes to Root Cause Analysis, some people may be involved as team members in team-based problem solving, others may be required to facilitate the process, and yet others will be required to perform QA on the outcomes of the process and/or approve deliverables.  A fully developed competence matrix should be used against which current levels of competence are benchmarked.  Plans can then be developed for addressing identified competence gaps.  These plans should incorporate a combination of formal training, on-the-job coaching, and experiential learning.

Establish Performance Measures that Reward Innovative Behaviours

In most mining organisations there are plenty of lagging measures that measure outcomes.  It should be possible to assess whether, for example, plant reliability is improving (and therefore whether an RCM initiative is succeeding).  But the problem with this is twofold.  First, it is hard to assign causality – plant reliability could be improving for a range of reasons, not just because of the RCM initiative.  Second, there is frequently a significant time gap between implementation of the outcomes of the program and the impact on plant reliability being able to be measured.  This is especially true of small scale, shopfloor driven improvement initiatives.

Instead, we recommend that mining organisations establish measures that determine whether the right behaviours are being displayed – are improvement projects being initiated, are they being progressed, are the outcomes being implemented?  These are all leading measures and more immediate.  If we trust the improvement process being applied, and these are being driven by competent people, then we should have faith that results will eventually follow. 

The focus here is on measuring behaviours, not outcomes.  An organisation’s culture is determined by the behaviours that people within it display – and it is the culture that we are trying to change.

How can Assetivity help?

Assetivity, as a consulting and training organisation can help mining organisations to become more innovative in many ways.  These include:

  • Helping organisations to align with ISO 55001 – we are endorsed by the Institute of Asset Management as ISO 55001 assessors and trainers
  • Developing and implementing improvement processes, such as Root Cause Analysis, Reliability Centred Maintenance Preventive Maintenance Optimisation and more. We can help to design those processes, provide training in the concepts and tools, and assist with the provision of on-the-job coaching
  • Developing competence frameworks for improvement, and assessing current levels of competence
  • Developing and implementing performance measures and performance management systems

We would be delighted to assist you in any way we can.  Please contact us to discuss your current situation and your needs.

Sandy Dunn

Managing Director 

  

You can find this article by downloading a copy of Austmine's latest eBook: Securing Mining's Future Workforce here.