We have asked our team to share their key learnings and journey on when they have seen sites continually improving.
We brought forward some questions to the team such as: When you were working on-site what triggered you to go on an improvement journey? Was it just the business leadership forcing people down that road due to a commodity price downturn? Was it just that you were always looking to improve because that is the way you are wired? Was it that you saw some benchmarking data or a current state assessment (audit) that made you compare your performance?
I think certain people are wired to continually look for improvement opportunities. But a lot of the time the type of opportunities we pursue is driven by external circumstances such as market conditions. The need to survive tends to focus the mind on improvement.
I've always focused my improvement journeys inwards, to maximise what my team or business can achieve with what's under our control. Making comparisons with others is not something that has driven my improvement focus, except to illustrate what it's possible to achieve.
A couple of examples spring to mind.
My first senior reliability engineer role was in a metals concentrator during an earlier mining boom. The number one priority (apart from safety) was to maximise the product going out the gate, so the team's work was all about to run time. It was already a well-run plant with very few failures, but a simple Pareto analysis showed us that three specific failure modes were contributing 80% of the remaining unplanned downtime. So the team set about systematically fixing the issues, and within 12 months most of the downtime had been eliminated.
Fast-forward several years, and the boom had turned to bust. And - at the same time, a series of issues in the pit meant that we didn't have the ore available that we needed, so increasing run time was irrelevant now. We were in a fair bit of financial trouble, and cost-cutting wasn't enough. So our improvement focus had to be on what we could control, which in this case was to modify our operating strategy to increase recoveries. I'm not much of a metallurgist, but luckily we had a heap of good ones on site, so we were all able to work together to come up with a way forward.
The lesson for me is that improvement is both a process and a mindset that can work in any context as long as you can find someone with the right knowledge to contribute.
I have to be honest, I spent most of my time as a Superintendent putting out fires and managing the noise of short term management teams in a cyclic economy. When I reflect I didn't have the time, the support or the skill to make the world a better place. I put this down to not learning about asset management along the way and improving my skill set.
Since I have learnt asset management skills, mainly through our Bluefield Transformation process, I have had the opportunity to go back to the site with a different foresight. Improvement projects were triggered by, of all things, low scheduled compliance, which was caused by poor management of hour based servicing, too many and poor management of breakdowns and planned work not being a priority. Focus on the trigger of low schedule compliance also lead us to poor work management, no history on work orders, work orders not being closed off when the job was completed and jobs not completed but did not know why.
Stefan Van Der Linde
My experience in maintenance has been that engineers rarely take time to pause in their day to day activities to embark on a dedicated improvement journey as they can be like frogs in boiling water and slowly bury themselves in the myriad of issues of the day. I know I did (the most successful improvement project on an underperforming equipment fleet that I've been involved in was brought about by a concerned maintenance manager).
Often it takes a conscious will to stop and review the situation or an external person observing from the outside the chaos within. The real challenge with engineers and other problems solvers is learning to triage the issues and essentially not solve problems that don't provide the most value. There are always more problems out there than resources to deal with them. Pareto the issues and dealing with them accordingly is key.
I've found this to be a major contributor to growing departments, where extra resources are onboarded if the noise is loud enough without stopping to question if there is scope creep to the departments' mission based on the noise of the day.
My early experiences on the job were that you do what has always been done because as a young electrical apprentice and tradesman it was about following the rules and what you were told to do, and coming from a mining background the regulations in those days were very prescriptive and didn't allow much wriggle room. I believe what hindered me and most other tradesmen in my day was a lack of understanding of failure modes and trying to understand the underlying causes of these failures. We were trained to be good at installing and fixing, not necessarily fixing forever, but getting it fixed quick.
Once I got an appreciation of what caused things to fail and the concepts of containment and then looking for a long term fix (countermeasure) then I was much more open to looking at how we could improve what was happening out on the job. This seemed to rub off on looking at the processes and tools for doing work as well, like jigs, special tools, good sequencing etc.
I certainly am not wired to automatically look for improvements, but once I could see a process for going about it, things made more sense from an improvement viewpoint.
For me and my experience, it was an urge to improve things to make them workable. I was working in a gold mine at the Tanami in the NT in the early 2000’s - and I was working as a drill fitter. I remember looking through a few work orders for the jumbo I was servicing and thinking, why don’t we just review all of the outstanding work for this rig and try and close some of it out. I didn’t know at the time, but I was essentially wanting to review the machines backlog. The supervisors and planners at the time were quite happy because we managed to close out a heap of long-overdue backlog items for that machine. The same thing happened with spares, I couldn’t for the life of me work out how there were containers and containers full of new spares for these drills, with nothing properly catalogued. I ended up volunteering to stocktake the drill containers and review the solo and jumbo backlogs, which in turn ended up resulting in me being promoted to a planner’s position from the workshop floor. So, for me, the trigger to improve was just a pragmatic desire to see the process work efficiently.
As an apprentice and a young fitter, I would get frustrated by ongoing (like) problems, and find myself spending the time to understand why before fixing it properly. My frustration would then be in explaining "Why? Why? Arggghh!!! Why again to the responsible people?". As I grew usually I was able to mentor the workshop around me with incorrect repair techniques and troubleshooting process to stop so many whys. The catalyst, that was until I had a role managing critical equipment with a low skill-based workforce and, a team of "I am the boss" Engineers. My experience and people skills were not enough to stop several I told you so's before I had to fix their do it this way, it's in my book ideas anyway. From this point forward, I realised that optimised anything comes from people doing until its done. Completing an engineering degree was not only to learn more but to be able to put the "why (with specific justification requirements)" into a language the people listening could understand. Learning people has been a lot harder than equipment, but I have seen ongoing that once people are engaged and accountable, optimisation can be achieved irrespective of the specific problem/s.
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