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Coal, Cost and Culture: Taking The High Road To Culture Change

World Coal,

In this month’s episode, we find Shortfall’s management team facing a situation that occurs periodically at every mining operation: production equipment failed unexpectedly. The question was ‘who caused the failure – operations or maintenance?’ How the management team responded to this issue influenced the culture in the plant…

At the Shortfall processing plant, operations and maintenance shared the responsibility for equipment inspections, checking fluids, etc. The control room operators operated the equipment within certain parameters and were responsible for proper start-up/shut-down procedures. Spillage was a common problem in the plant due to running at capacity, but the operations department was staffed to assist with cleanup. As expected, maintenance techs were responsible for proper repair of equipment when it was down.

Shortfall was lucky to have two new superintendents in the plant that had good intentions and wanted to work together to create a better workplace for themselves and their employees. However, these superintendents had inherited a negative work environment created by past superintendents that constantly blamed each other for every problem. Both new superintendents had encountered several challenges within and between their departments over the past few months. Progress towards an improved culture in the plant had been made, but ‘surprises’ continued to catch them offguard.

This past week, another unexpected equipment failure (one of three this month) occurred. Each department initially thought that they had followed the correct procedure and blamed the other department for the problem. As a result, employees in both departments resented each other for the damaged equipment. Unfortunately, both frustrated superintendents were also quick to jump to conclusions and participated in the ‘blame-game’. As a result, the month ended with operations and maintenance employees growing apart instead of working more closely together.

What could have been different about this scenario?

Many people look at culture and culture change as a mysterious black box made up of many different factors, most of which are people-driven. The complexity of culture can be overwhelming and, therefore, seem very difficult to change. Understanding some basic factors about the building blocks of culture can help bring clarity to this complexity.

The importance of a great culture between operations and maintenance cannot be over-emphasised because it affects production, cost and morale. Both operations and maintenance perform activities that directly support each other, but they often behave as two independent departments that just happen to work in the same building. This kind of adversarial working relationship is caused by several different factors, including but not limited to:

  1. Personality conflicts between the two department superintendents.
  2. KPIs chosen to measure department success.
  3. The budget process.
  4. The process for responding to unplanned events.

The first three factors are self-explanatory. The fourth factor deserves some additional explanation:

One of the easiest things to do in the midst of a surprise or crisis is to assign blame to another group (before investigating what really happened). When managers do this, they:

  1. Make employees into victims, giving them permission to ignore a problem.
  2. Tend not to seek the root cause of the problem.
  3. Rarely ask their employees to change procedures to prevent the problem in the future.
  4. Create a virtual wall between departments that lives on after a problem is forgotten.

Thought for the month:

Take the ‘high road’ to preserve your culture. Pre-judging a situation makes it harder to get to the root cause of the problem. Countless millions of dollars are lost every year because emotions of managers interfere with problem resolution. Cultures suffer when barriers outlive the problems that created them. It is possible to use a process to intentionally resolve problems as a strategy for improving culture.

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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