November 2014

Underground entrepreneurs

Red Lake miners now members of small business cells operating with more autonomy

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Last fall Goldcorp’s Red Lake mine was organized conventionally, with teams reporting to supervisors who in turn reported to a general foreman. With a wicket system in place, employees arriving for their shift lined up to receive their assignment from their supervisor for the day, taking them to different parts of the mine. It was a hierarchical approach that managers had determined was less than ideal.

To build the foundation for a more employee-driven organization, Red Lake management chose to reorganize operations into 14 different cells – or business units – each comprising between 10 and 15 members. Each cell is assigned dedicated resources that include equipment, labour and support of organizational structures. And each one handles its own accounting and metrics. “Essentially, we set up each cell to act as an independent small business,” says Bob MacDonald, operations manager at Red Lake. “Collectively, we get to learn from the best practices of each unit, and independently, each unit is best equipped to deal with its own unique operating conditions. It’s a win-win.”

Planning

The planning process for the new organizational structure took three months, carried out by a team made up of a general foreman and a technical services representative as well as Trevor Krawchyk, Goldcorp’s operations excellence manager. They also worked closely with daily supervisor and technical teams to revise and fine-tune every aspect of the plan.

It was a daunting process. Krawchyk, who worked on planning and implementing cell mining at Barrick Gold’s Hemlo in 2004, says the complexity of Red Lake’s operation added to the challenges.

“Hemlo was easier because it was a standard mining method,” he says. “Here, there are two complexes, the Red Lake complex and the Campbell complex, two separate undergrounds and within those, there are captive mining areas and different mining methods, overhand and underhand cut and fill, pillar recovery and longhole, so it’s a mixed bag.”

Geography had to be taken into account, as the Red Lake and Campbell complexes collectively occupy a large area. “Keeping the cells small enough geographically so supervisors can have more face time with their employees versus spending a lot of their day travelling from one operation to another was important,” Krawchyk points out.

Infrastructure limitations such as adequate ventilation for each team and their equipment was another piece of the puzzle, he adds: “We were not going to have one team logically go from one area that was ramped and had access to lower levels of the mine and then have to go into another area that was captive mining. So we had infrastructure that limited how we designed the cells.”

Another key aspect was scheduling since team members working in the same cells needed to be on the same rotations. Due to different historical hiring practices, Red Lake had a variety of rotations. The new set-up standardized these, as well as creating fly in/fly out and local teams.

With a three-year mine plan in mind to avoid creating cells that would become obsolete within a couple of months, every cell was created to have a production rate of 100,000 to 150,000 tonnes per year. For equipment selection, the cells were prioritized based on ore production and grade. Ideally, each cell would have had its own maintenance team, but Red Lake does not currently have the resources for this, so instead maintenance teams were allocated zones that cover three to four cells.

The wicket system was replaced with cell meeting rooms, where the teams gather at the beginning of their shift to discuss safety and production goals for the day and resolve issues encountered during previous shifts. “It’s more of a team collaboration and discussion than a directive,” says Krawchyk.

Technology was also built into the plan: each cell meeting room is equipped with a 60-inch TV screen and video cameras to allow the cells to interface with all-employee meetings.

Then came planning for the human element: adapting to change, which involved a lot of communication with employees. There was significant training as well, in some cases for use of equipment where operators did not have prior experience. In others, as in the case of the supervisors, it involved coaching to improve their skills in leading meetings and team discussions.

Other adjustments included increasing the number of supervisors. “So we’ve had a fairly steep recruitment and training curve,” says MacDonald.

Implementation

In January Red Lake’s cell mining structure went live.

Peter Gula, Goldcorp’s mining manager, says it was an easy sell to employees. “When you tell your workers, ‘You’re going to have your own planning room with only the people who support your area underground, and we’re going to provide you your own equipment,’ there’s just smiles from ear to ear and they think that it’s great that they have a permanent workplace they can be accountable for.”

For the first three months, “there was fairly intensive ­follow-up. We’re still working on it and will make adjustments as needed,” says MacDonald. “The employees themselves were great to work with. People were patient and understood we were trying to make changes for positive reasons.”

Benefits

Engagement and ownership as well as communication have dramatically improved, says Gula. In the large meetings of the past, Red Lake management found the same few people tended to speak up. Now, with the new smaller team meetings, it is easier to get the message across that “We want to hear what you think, not only the good but also the bad,” he says. “Now you go into a cell meeting, and they’re the first to tell you: We need to do the material handling storage differently. We want to put some lighting here, we want to make sure the forklift can turn on a right angle to maximize the areas used – details that we didn’t even consider before, and we’re getting that input from the workers themselves.”

One of the theories behind implementing cell mining was that workers would take more ownership of their designated equipment. That has already paid off with lower maintenance costs. “People take more pride and make sure they do all the necessary maintenance on it because they don’t want to jeopardize up-time of the equipment designated for their cell,” says Gula.

Improvement in efficiency has already been noted at Red Lake as a result of cell mining, particularly in the areas of supplies and maintenance. Face-to-face communication between supervisors and their teams has also grown from about 10 percent of their time to between 25 and 35 percent.

“I believe this is a journey,” says MacDonald. “I always like to see better engagement with the workforce and we’re always going to be making adjustments to improve this, so we still have some work to do on it. But to be honest, I’m glad we did it and I think over time we will see substantial benefits as well.”

Matthew Pierce leads research that can help large cave mines achieve better safety and production

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