Everyone wants to cut costs, but merely establishing policies and processes to trim the fat won’t work. Initiatives to improve an operation’s
productivity and efficiency and to eliminate waste will only succeed when an operation’s staff buys in and supports them.
In 2010, as regional director of business excellence for a large mining firm, I learned this lesson well. I led a team of continuous improvement (CI)
specialists on several projects at an open pit gold mine in the Andean Highlands of Peru. There, I discovered first-hand that change cannot happen if
the staff on the ground are not behind it.
One project I worked on was a standard waste reduction initiative. One hundred expensive and fuel-inefficient four-by-four trucks were being used to
transport mine staff 80 kilometres to and from the mine. My team identified that using buses to transport staff would save US$675,000 per year and
would reduce the safety risks associated with so many vehicles circulating on a dangerous mountain road surrounded by communities. We met with members
of the mine’s maintenance group and with operations managers to implement policies and procedures for the proper use of vehicles. But despite agreeing
upon a clearly defined process and policy, nothing changed.
What was missed? When designing the processes and policies, we did not engage the staff at the mine who would be using the new form of transportation.
We did not realize that the trucks had become status symbols. Additionally, staff were unwilling to comply with the change because we had neither
involved them in the decision-making process nor communicated the project’s benefits, such as keeping them off dangerous roads. The CI group was
perceived as a bunch of intruders that had come to divest people of their right to proper transportation, and the project was abandoned.
Another project I led fared much better, despite initial hiccups. The CI group’s task was to improve trucks’ cycle time during the first 300 metres of
the haul. We started with a field visit to evaluate the situation. There was a long line of trucks waiting to be loaded, because already loaded trucks
were taking too long to leave the area. It was raining, and because the maintenance of the front of the pit was not sufficient for the weather
conditions, trucks were getting stuck in the mud. We discovered that the operations team was not using the right types of materials to waterproof the
mine and did not have access to equipment to improve this process.
We took a photograph to document the issue and sent it to the corporate office as part of a project update. The dissemination of the photo resulted in
an uproar at the mine: the operations manager and his team were furious, as they felt the photo could damage their reputation with top management. The
CI group realized the situation demanded proper internal stakeholder management; we had to communicate with the operations team and explain that we
were on their side and wanted to support their quest to obtain the necessary resources to improve the truck cycle times.
To rectify the situation and make the project a success, we met with operations management, apologized and presented a plan to manage CI projects
collaboratively. First, we identified the decision-makers on the operations side. Then, instead of positioning the CI group as project managers, we
asked the decision-makers on the operations side to lead the project, while members of the CI group acted as facilitators. We made sure operations
staff received proper CI training – in this case Six Sigma, a leadership program focused on process improvement and waste management. We also scheduled
regular project review meetings with the corporate office, making sure presentations were made by the operations team, not by the CI group. All field
visits and inspections were led and executed by operations, and there was recognition for staff achievements via newsletter notifications, project
completion celebrations and board director visits to the mine. We also built a process to both identify and develop future CI projects with ample input
from the operations team.
After the first year, the operations team had implemented CI projects worth over US$4 million in savings and had started an internal training program to
certify their key leaders through the Six Sigma program. Through this painstakingly achieved success, I learned that rolling out an effective CI program is
all about empowering the people working in the day-to-day operation to lead their own process improvements.
Bertrand de Windt is an international HR and business excellence consultant with over 20 years of experience in the mining industry. He specializes in change management and cultural transformation through leadership engagement groups and organizational behavioural design. Bertrand has been instrumental in organizing the opening of the CIM Lima Branch