Innovation is essentially about value creation through either developing new concepts or applying known methods in novel ways. Furthermore, innovation can be incremental or breakthrough. In all cases, people are the source of innovation, and processes provide the means to generate and deploy it. When technology is at the core of innovation, both people and processes are integral parts of its successful development and deployment. This article advocates the need for an integrated approach, which includes three equally important pillars — people, processes, and technology.
There is often a tendency to spend a lot of time and effort developing technology components because it offers a tangible way to show progress. After all, we need to demonstrate the viability of a technological solution before we can make a business case for its implementation. However, the highest return on investment can only be achieved if the processes affected are adjusted to take advantage of the enabling technology and the end users actually use it as it was designed. History has shown that without the appropriate business process changes at the site, the simple introduction of technology into an operation does not typically yield the promised productivity gains.
There are many examples of troubled system implementations in our industry to illustrate how a failure to carefully consider the people-process side has had a devastating impact on the end result. Enterprise Resource Planning implementations provide numerous examples of technology initiatives that widely missed their schedule and budget due to inadequate understanding about the impact of the roll-out on people and processes.
If we consider the automated mine as the breakthrough innovation being pursued, it is paramount to understand the implications for the workforce and the processes that drive the operation. A simple risk assessment will quickly show that without full consideration of both the people and relevant processes, the technology itself poses a significant risk to the safety of both personnel and property.
As a mining engineer with a systems background, I have had the privilege of working on two innovative mine automation programs — the first in underground hard-rock mining and the second, more recently, in surface mining. Both initiatives required extensive development and field testing of technology components as well as viable overall system architecture. While in the first case there was no explicit people-process strategy, the second technology program adopted a more balanced approach, with equal emphasis on the three pillars.
The diagram illustrates the three pillars and their high-level components. Because the aim of this article is to discuss the importance of a people and process strategy in a technology program, it will not include an in-depth description of the technology components required for autonomy.
The people strategy is a change management plan designed to prepare the organization to transition from manual to autonomous operation in an actual mining operation. It includes a communications plan to appropriately engage stakeholders, whether internal or external to the company. It also addresses the organizational design required to effectively embrace the paradigm shift created by the use of automation. The forward-looking company that wants to adopt autonomous mining must understand that it requires an organizational strategy to develop and retain the skill sets necessary to run it. A competency model must be developed, along with a staffing and recruitment process, training and development, as well as performance management and succession planning.
Process mapping is required to fully grasp the changes that must be implemented in the way a mine is managed. With the implementation of mine automation, the mining operation cannot be run the same way as a conventional operation, primarily for safety reasons, but also to ensure the maximum realization of benefits in productivity, reliability and quality. Mapping the current state of processes — such as engineering, operations, and maintenance — ensures that key stakeholders are on the same page as to how each task is currently performed. A clear understanding of how each affected function is executed in the current manual mode will help define the process changes that are required in the future state, when autonomous mining is implemented. Process mapping is a participatory methodology that promotes cross-functional communication and builds buy-in. Without common understanding and engagement from all levels of management and operations, the final outcome will be jeopardized.
There are significant complexities inherent in the integrated approach that has been presented, but it should be noted that this balanced approach is not a rigid framework; it must be adapted to the particular needs of each organization that seeks to implement a game-changing technology, such as mine automation.
Laura Mottola is president and principal consultant of Mottola Consulting. She has a master’s of engineering in mining automation and over 15 years of experience working in industry, mainly in mining and metals, but also in the automotive and aerospace sectors. Her expertise covers program management, process improvement, Lean, systems thinking and change management.