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Coal, Cost and Culture: Management Strategies for Improving Mine Performance

Oilfield Technology,

Companies often expect to change their corporate cultures by creating improvement teams that incorporate improvement tools and methods into current business processes. Management teams falsely assume that these tools and methods come with an ‘embedded power’ to change culture. In reality, culture changes because people decide to change it, and the tools and methods effectively support that decision. Members of the management team are key players in the decision to change culture. One of the greatest challenges in sustaining improvement is helping those managers understand and ‘own’ their roles in culture change. 

Consider a traditional ‘recipe’ for improvement at mines and plants:

  • Mines and plants often form teams to address efficiencies of functional activities (hauling, crushing, packaging, etc.).
  • Teams are usually made up of senior employees and newer employees. This mix combines in-depth process knowledge with new perspectives on operating and maintaining equipment, producing a quality product and meeting customer specifications.
  • Meeting attendance is given a high priority by site management. Team members are strongly encouraged to attend every meeting and backup is provided for employees when necessary. Best practice calls for team facilitators that are independent of each functional area.
  • Teams are trained to use a process approach to identify/analyse problems and implement action plans for improvement. Teams often identify ‘free’ improvement opportunities that do not require capital for new or upgraded equipment.
  • After the proper analysis, process changes are proposed and approved by area managers, including communications, process data exchanged between departments, and charts and graphs designed to connect employees to process performance.
  • Training plans for employees affected by process changes are developed and reviewed with supervisors. Action plans from the teams are ‘rolled out’ to departments. Supervisors try hard to follow new procedures as data is captured and reports are completed.
  • Management quantifies and reports gains in the form of cost savings and process efficiencies.

Nowhere in this recipe do we see an analysis of corporate culture – its history, its standards for excellence and acceptable behaviours, and the execution practices that drive management behaviours and create employee expectations. Team members may have high hopes that their time and work will positively impact performance AND the culture. Employees that do not participate on teams also expect an improved culture based on a perception of strong management commitment to change and team success.

Perception is reality, especially when it comes to corporate culture. The worse the culture is, the more important an honest assessment of the culture becomes to the success of any improvement initiative. The worst mistakes managers make when deciding to change culture are:

  • Believing that they are not part of the problem.
  • Assuming that improvement tools and methods will change the culture for them.
  • Transferring the responsibility for culture change to departments or improvement teams.

Stories about bad morale, backstabbing, favouritism, and mistrust will spread across departments, shaping opinions about working in certain areas of a company. These opinions further ‘warp’ the culture originally initialised by both desirable and deficient management behaviours. If personal power becomes more important than working co-operatively towards a common goal, only a choice for change within the management team can fix the problem.

Cultures won’t change if you start in the wrong place with the wrong issues. Reaching agreement with top management on what they are willing to stop doing and what they are willing to start doing is the secret to sustainable culture change.  

Thought for the month:

Cultures won’t change if you start in the wrong place with the wrong issues. Reaching agreement with top management on what they are willing to stop doing and what they are willing to start doing is the secret to sustainable culture change. 

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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