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How to Resolve People Problems in Your Mining Operation

The following is adapted from Simplifying Mining Maintenance.

When you get down to it, every problem related to mining maintenance involves people problems: people aren’t motivated; they’re not committed; or leadership doesn’t care.

Part of the problem is poor communication, which can create a workplace where people don’t help each other out. You can’t expect someone to go the extra mile for you if you aren’t willing to do the same. I have worked in places where the manager has to make all of the decisions instead of the frontline workers figuring it out themselves.

With this approach; people work against each other rather than as a team. Operations like this typically have low morale and high turnover, which leads to various issues.

People in cross functions often don’t recognise that they are all working on the same team in one business. As a manager, it bothered me that we couldn’t all just work together as one company. Unfortunately, many people seem to need someone within the business who is the bad guy. I call it the internal bad guy syndrome.

If it’s an operation where everyone works well together, they will identify someone from corporate as the bad guy. If it’s a company where everyone gets along, they will find an industry regulator to treat as the bad guy! This mentality isn’t productive, and the only way to change it is if leadership, whether it’s on site or in a corporate office, models good communication and going the extra mile for others.

Here are some more specific people problems and how they can be overcome.

Problem #1: Conflict at the managerial level

General managers often have problems with maintenance managers. Maintenance managers always want more people and more money, particularly if they are in a reactive environment. But general managers don’t want to hear that. General managers need to achieve higher profit, and requests for more money threaten that goal.

I’ve been caught in the middle of these communication breakdowns before, and if the conflict cannot be resolved, the maintenance manager usually leaves for another job. The general manager is also impacted, because they don’t achieve their business goals.

Solution #1: Talk about profit

The simple solution for maintenance managers is to talk to their general managers about profit or the bottom line outcomes that the general manager must deliver.

Maintenance managers need to show how their requests for people and money will deliver the profit the general managers want to see. It is not enough for a maintenance manager to tell the general manager, “I’m going to spend this money and we will get more uptime in the plant throughout.” Maintenance managers have to indicate how the money will increase profits, and then they must deliver on that promise.

The key is to demonstrate how additional resources will benefit profit. If you know you need to do a shutdown and want to bring in a specialist to reduce downtime, you would articulate the plan to the general manager like this: “The plan is for this machine to be down for three weeks. This is a critical machine in the business. Every hour lost with that machine is lost product and lost tonnes. I want to reduce this downtime from three weeks to two, but I need to spend $150,000 on a specialist project manager to help me do that. The payback will be in the millions.”

When you provide a clear business case like that, the general manager will likely grant your requests, especially if you have a track record of delivering promised results.

Problem #2: Supervisors are expected to make all decisions

Increasingly, people in the business think the supervisor needs to make all of the decisions. This leads to the mentality that when anything goes wrong, it’s the supervisor’s fault. As a supervisor, if the twenty or thirty people on your team come to you all day to solve their problems, you’d never get your own work done.

Mine leadership must empower tradies to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their actions. In this scenario, the supervisor becomes the coach of the team while the other team members self-reliantly do their work. Good supervisors do not try to do everything for the team. Instead, they create high-functioning teams.

When I was a supervisor, I learned to entrust people. For example, one guy came to me every day to sign a piece of paper allowing the guy to get consumables from the warehouse. One day I taught him how to request things from the warehouse himself.

He became happier because he could now function in his job without being held up by me, and I got more time to focus on more important things.

Another example involved the machine operators, who called me every time they had a breakdown. It took a while, but I got them to start directly calling the tradespeople who would respond and fix the machine instead of calling me to call the tradies. This empowered the operators as well as the tradespeople, who now made more decisions for themselves. I often see work-management processes dictate that the supervisor makes all of the decisions rather than the tradies who know more about the problem.

Solution #2: Supervisors must coach and empower

A supervisor cannot and should not be watching the workforce all day. It is essential to have empowered tradespeople to make decisions. To achieve that environment, the supervisor must coach and empower the tradespeople. If you are a supervisor, every time a tradesperson comes to you with a problem, ask yourself, “Is this a decision I need to be making? How can I empower this guy to address the problem rather than going through me?” These questions generate solutions and improvements.

Sometimes we try to solve problems by writing prescriptive procedures, but this is too complicated. If we focus our teams on the values that we have developed, they will make the right decisions when the situation arises. This is a much simpler approach.

Problem #3: Managers can’t judge maintenance performance

I once consulted for a business that had eight different mining operations. I conducted a performance review on each one and found that the last site was the best performer.

The workshop was orderly, and the maintenance manager had been there for five years and had the same maintenance superintendents and supervisors during that time. He was open, honest, and direct, and the metrics around scheduled and unscheduled maintenance downtime also reflected the good performance of the plant.

Despite the maintenance manager’s excellent work, the general manager didn’t care for him. The maintenance manager may have been too direct in his communication. In any case, the maintenance manager eventually left that company for a job elsewhere.

If a machine goes down and stops producing, general managers know because their people stop working. Maintenance managers, on the other hand, won’t instantly know when a breakdown occurs because their team is on the ground fault-finding.

What usually happens next is the general manager asks the maintenance manager when the machine will be back up, and if the maintenance manager doesn’t know, he’s incorrectly judged as being unaware of what is happening—even though the supervisors and tradespeople haven’t found the problem yet.

Solution #3: Establish a performance baseline

The solution is for the general manager and the maintenance manager to have an open discussion about how the maintenance team and performance should be judged.

The general manager must understand that the maintenance manager won’t immediately know the issue in a breakdown and instead should be judged on scheduled downtime, unscheduled downtime, and life-cycle performance of the plant. They should be judged on their trends and whether they are eliminating repeat failures. What is done today in maintenance will show in the results six to twelve months down the track.

For more advice on resolving people problems in your mining operation, you can find Simplifying Mining Maintenance on Amazon, google ebooks and at www.simplifyingminingmaintenance.com

Gerard Wood is one of the mining industry’s foremost authorities on proper mining equipment maintenance. In his long career, Wood has been all over the world, working his way up from an electrician’s apprentice to a maintenance manager with advanced degrees in electrical engineering and business. As managing director for Bluefield AMS, Wood helps the world’s largest mining companies keep their machines running with a simple, practical approach that saves money and improves equipment reliability.

 

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