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Coal, Cost and Culture: The Cultural Dangers of 'Strong-Arming'

Oilfield Technology,

Old mining properties have seen many superintendents and managers come and go, all with different personalities and management styles. One strategy for 'fixing things' (i.e., production, cost, compliance) may have been bringing in people from the outside that were more concerned about exercising their power than working together with other departments to find the best solution for the site. Even corporate offices have used this approach with their sites; as a result, operations are forced to use processes, procedures and policies that are ineffective and drive the wrong behaviours at all organisational levels.

I call this approach 'strong-arming'. When managers at any level measure their success on how many times they get their way, ugly things happen. If this management style is allowed to continue year after year, management and the workforce are trained to accept substandard work and substandard operating results. This level of acceptance is a catalyst for constant battles between departments, 'secrets', low morale, and little hope for a better future. Who WOULD want to work in such an environment?

'Strong-arming' raises its head in day-to-day activities. Following is an example of an actual job where strong-arming resulted in poor management choices (the company name was changed to protect the innocent).

The No-Name Plant was several decades old and required structural repairs due to ageing. A large water pipe installed when the operation first started up began springing leaks because the metal was failing, causing production delays and environmental events. Capital for a new pipe was added to the budget year after year, but was always reallocated to other projects. In recent months, the pipe began to fail almost weekly and everyone agreed that it had to be replaced immediately.

When the original pipe was installed, a second parallel pipe was installed. The second pipe had separate manual valves that had a directional arrow but no indicator of the valve position (i.e., open or closed). The main line pipe replacement would take several weeks. To supply water for production, management decided to depend solely on the second line during the main line repairs. Before the main pipe was disconnected, a last-minute test of the second line was scheduled by maintenance. The second line was just as old as the first line, so no one knew if it would hold pressure and no one knew for sure if the valves on the second line were open or closed.

For several years, operations had been 'strong-arming' maintenance (i.e, directing maintenance work through the back door by excluding maintenance personnel when making decisions about maintenance activities). On this particular day maintenance wanted to verify the position of the valves on the second line before the valve on the main line was closed. Operations personnel 'thought' that the valves on the second line were open and told maintenance that a test was not necessary. Operations were so convinced they were right that they were willing to risk injuring employees, damaging infrastructure, and causing major production delays if pipes or valves failed.

On this particular day, the maintenance superintendent refused to give in to operations and would not shut the main valve until the position of the valves on the second line were tested. When the test was conducted, the valves tested CLOSED instead of open. If the water had been redirected to the second line without the test, a major failure would have occurred.

In this example, operations’ habit of strong-arming maintenance overpowered their focus on safety and protecting company assets. The destructive power of this management style cannot be overemphasised - intentionally breaking it is one of the most value-added actions that a management team can take to improve performance AND culture.

Thought for the month:

Don’t let strong-arming invade your culture. It subtly impacts decisions at every level and never creates a positive result.

Author: Kay Sever CMC, CQIA, Sustainable Improvement Consultant and Coach. Kay Sever is a leader in sustainable improvement for mines and plants. She combines 29 years of mining experience with a common sense approach to improvement that raises awareness about lost opportunity and hidden barriers that prevent improvement success.

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