People: The Human Side of Mining Operational Excellence

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Visit any mine or head office and you’ll notice they are hives of activity where people are busy performing a wide range of tasks, all of which contribute in some way to the operation of a modern mining enterprise.  Even with advances in technology it’s obvious that people are still an essential part of the equation, and given this heavy reliance on people it’s easy to see why mining companies need to ensure that the collective effort of their human resources needs to have a positive, not static or negative, effect on the pursuit of operational excellence.

In considering the collective human effort within a mining company and how it contributes to achieving operational excellence, consider this quote from the famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle. “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted right. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Putting a slightly more modern view on this and within the context of this blog, mining companies need to have strategies in place (training and habituation) which ensure that every employee is behaving and performing in a way such that continuous improvement (acting right) is part of every activity and task undertaken.

There have been huge amounts of literature produced on the subject of human (people) behavior, especially in relation to the organizational setting, so the intention here is not to review all of this material but to highlight the importance of factoring people into any strategy for operational excellence, and some of the areas around this which need to be considered.

So what can mining companies do to ensure that desired behaviors are achieved?  A study in 2003 by John Purcell et al (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) determined that three key characteristics are required to enable people excellence, namely:

  • The ability to perform
  • The motivation to perform (reasons and attitude), and
  • The opportunity to perform (the chance and the right conditions to do).

The first characteristic, the ability to perform, is tied to the skills, competencies, knowledge and education of the workforce.  Traditional training approaches no longer deliver required outcomes, so mining companies need to reconsider the mechanisms by which they equip their people with these essential abilities.  For example, the use of simulation and virtual reality technologies available today provides a much more effective training environment for higher levels of experiential learning, resulting in better knowledge retention.

The second characteristic, the motivation to perform, is linked to reasons and attitude.  “Why am I doing this task?” “What am I getting out of it?”  These are the questions being asked by the workforce.  Companies address this through the topics of organizational structure, staff roles and responsibilities.

The third characteristic, the opportunity to perform, entails providing the opportunity and the right conditions for the workforce to excel.  To address this characteristic, mining companies need to make sure that their workforce is doing the right work and has the essential tools and resources to enable excellence.  For example, advancements in information management and visualization technologies provide greater situational awareness that enables better decision making.

All three characteristics need to be addressed through the development of a well thought out ‘people’ strategy which is tightly coupled with the other areas addressed in operational excellence.

The concept of a fully autonomous, human-free mining operation will be confined to the thought bubbles and ‘mining in the future’ presentations of companies for some time to come.  But people are and will be an essential part of any mining organization for years to come, and as such, they need to be considered as an essential part of any operational excellence strategy.

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