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

World Coal,

Most mines have had some experience with at least one process improvement programme. Their project reports always indicated that there were millions of dollars of lost opportunity to capture, but a year later, realised benefits often fell short of expectations. As a result, senior management teams lost credibility when explaining recurring shortfalls to their Boards and shareholders.

We did everything right, didn’t we?

These mines followed implementation steps that are typically found in every improvement programme. Data was analysed, new measures were defined, projects were identified, process flows were documented, and teams were formed. By taking these steps, management expected significant impacts to the bottom line and the culture. If these steps represent the accepted ‘recipe for improvement success,’

  • Why did operational and financial improvement fall short of expectations?
  • Why did the anticipated culture change fail to materialise?
  • Why were some improvements reported for a few months but not sustained?

Understanding your barriers

Before any company can improve performance, managers must be open to changing things they have never changed before. For that reason, it is extremely important to understand the real reasons that improvements are forfeited or never materialise. Without this awareness, management teams will continue to dedicate resources and consulting fees to important projects that CANNOT deliver the expected benefits. And… management teams will continue to lose credibility as promises to the Board and shareholders do not materialise.

Organisational effectiveness (i.e., how managers and employees interact with equipment, with departments and with each other) is a non-negotiable success factor in improvement that is often given a low priority because its true value in the improvement process is misunderstood. Without it, barriers to improvement are created that become accepted as ‘part of the process’ or ‘part of the culture’. These barriers are responsible for the subtle loss of millions of dollars in production and cost. Some of these barriers even exist within management systems, making them harder to eliminate.     

Over the last decade, I have found organisational barriers everywhere I went, regardless of a mine’s size or mining method. They caused employees, departments and managers to:

  • Develop ‘workarounds’ to get their jobs done.
  • Work overtime to correct problems that could have been avoided.
  • Be prouder of responding to breakdowns than executing planned work.
  • Let equipment sit idle because operations and maintenance were not talking to each other.
  • Make judgment calls about communicating to third shift because ‘prep work was less important’.
  • Accept lost equipment or undelivered supplies underground as ‘just the way it is here’.
  • Mark projects ‘complete’ when the benefits have not been delivered.
  • Set mines up for failure by unintentionally setting unachievable goals for availability and utilisation.  

You would never engineer barriers that steal production and increase cost into your systems and processes, so why wouldn’t you want to give high priority to removing them? This is the first of many articles about those barriers and some strategies for removing them. Each month I will leave you with a thought about what I call the ‘people side of improvement’.

Here’s the thought for February:

Examine the ‘ingredients’ in your improvement recipe. Look for barriers and you will find your highest priority projects. The more you focus on barrier removal, the greater your improvement success will be.

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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