June/July 2008

Innovation Page

Setting the stage for workplace innovation

By G. Winkel

Innovation, workplace creativity, new technology application, and research and development are all expressions we have come to associate with leading-edge firms that set the next platform or benchmark for performance excellence. And it’s powerful!  Leveraging that next breakthrough capability and putting it to work in your company can produce measurably better results that contribute significantly to a firm’s viability and success.

It’s not surprising that many companies then invest sizably in new technology development and applications that brand them as innovators in their industry. The mining and mineral processing areas are no exception, with innovations ranging from 3-D mine visualizations, automation and robotics, advanced equipment monitoring, new wear materials, sensor development, process control algorithms and much more. All of these combine to make the mining industry more competitive and effective as a whole.

Amidst these higher profile developments there is another form of innovation at work every day in our operations. It’s an area where people knowledgeable in their work are valued for their creativity in addressing challenges and coming up with improvements to the business. When supported at every level in an organization, it promotes a culture of innovation that is embraced as a core business strategy.

For a creative culture to happen in a company, leadership that understands and supports this dynamic is required — leadership that genuinely believes that when given positive choices, people want to contribute to that next improvement and be connected to a unit or team that continually gets better at what it does.

This is also principled leadership in action. Principled leaders understand that there is a moral imperative to support people so that, as much as possible, work is a positive life experience as opposed to something that is endured.  It’s a healthy workplace with reduced negative stress and positive performance. Opening up the opportunity to innovate is one part of the equation.

The interesting and challenging work that goes along with an innovation culture promotes commitment that unleashes peoples’ discretionary effort to go beyond the norm to produce great results.

Making innovation happen is also hard work. It requires a set of leadership skills that promotes engagement of people rather than continually directing their efforts.  Leadership of this caliber is quick to implement the more immediate improvements and has developed mechanisms for engaging management in approval processes to progress the larger scope ideas.

There are many examples where the ability to innovate led to performance improvement. Consider a mineral processing plant that employed large sloped rotating cylindrical vessels to mix ore and water into a slurry, as required for a downstream extraction process. High rates of wear in this vessel required frequent maintenance outages to reconstitute wear surfaces and structures with heavy weld overlays and repairs.  The confines of the vessel made working within it at multiple sites difficult, leading to injury incidents and schedule pressure to perform the necessary work.  This was clearly not an acceptable situation.  However, repeated attempts to alter work plans and execution strategies were frustrated with little or no improvement.

The need to innovate was clear.  People closest to this hard work were supported to take on the challenge and knew what could be done. The suggestions for improvement came immediately and were implemented by management.  Electricians were given the time upfront to devise improved lighting in the vessel, air movers were used from other areas in the plant to improve ventilation, scaffolders were left to design more robust working platforms that improved accessibility and limited exposure by others to heavy welding, the workers set personal protective equipment requirements and enforced them, heavy lifts were sequenced with work breaks to limit exposure, and more.  People’s creative ideas for improvement transformed the work. As a result of their innovative efforts, this work is now routinely completed within cost and schedule and, most importantly, with zero injuries.  And it’s a work environment where people feel good about their achievements and feel valued for their ideas.

Everyday innovation in mining is a great partner to the technological innovations we are progressing, and we will rely heavily on both to improve the mining and mineral processing industry.

Gord Winkel, oil sands technology manager, Kearl Oil Sands Project, Imperial Oil Resources, is a strong supporter of workplace safety and the advancement of mining technology as a means to improve both mining industry effectiveness and the quality of life for mining people.

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