The application of Lean Manufacturing thinking in the mining sector started gaining momentum some 20 years ago. Since then, it has focussed strongly on waste elimination and daily management practices. This has been a predominantly tools-based approach (eg 5S, information centres, kaizen etc). There have been some good outcomes and, when applied correctly, these practices are still in use, influencing the way work is completed. In those cases, sustainability has often been driven by individual leaders, or by workgroups that have seen the value of an initiative to making their jobs easier (eg shadow boards to locate tools quickly or quick changeovers to execute faster and remove frustration).

What prevents us moving beyond waste elimination tools and daily management

Before we look at what pieces are missing, we need to understand why many programs using Lean Manufacturing principles in mining aren’t fully sustained…or even fail. From our observations, this can commonly be linked to:

  • Treating Lean as a one-off initiative, rather than the beginning of an ongoing change process
  • Managing implementation via the single application of one or two tools, rather than part of an interlinking system and way of thinking
  • Failing to understand that successful application involves everyone in the organisation, resulting in teams not seeing the value of the change or seeing implementation as top-down and disconnected to their experience
  • Having leaders who do not understand their role in the use of daily management systems, making it difficult to lead through example or coach their teams effectively

The ‘missing pieces’ to applying Lean Manufacturing in mining

For the application of Lean Manufacturing in mining to evolve, we see there are two missing pieces that could help move the industry to higher levels of success.

The first is moving beyond the belief that Lean is the one-off use of a tool or technique, to an understanding that it’s a system where these are all linked. Without systems thinking, it’s nearly impossible to drive sustainable behavioural change across an organisation. Systems thinking ensures individual knowledge, and the regular application of structured, disciplined processes, deliver business knowledge that is not held within individuals.

The second is people. The people category is broad and there are many aspects to consider. However, the core is the idea that Lean isn’t a ‘thing’ you do but rather a way of thinking. It’s change management in action. That means it needs to involve and consider people first. Team members need to have the skills, capability and willingness to improve. Leaders also have a vital role in establishing the required behaviours and use of management systems to help teams drive change beyond personal preference. For leaders, that means:

  • Understanding their role to support the change to Lean thinking
  • Leading by example and modelling good behaviours
  • Encouraging the reporting of problems and involving workgroups in defining and implementing solutions
  • Coaching team members on process and behavioural elements

There’s no injection of ‘Lean’ from a training day that does the job. It’s not a one-hit wonder. Success is about trying to change the way people think about and approach their tasks and the way they solve problems at all levels.

As an industry, can we make the change

What’s exciting for us at Minset is that Lean Manufacturing is starting to get more recognition in the mining sector. This time, the changes feel a little different. Apart from economic considerations, we feel this is being driven by other factors such as the:

  • Evolution of industry thinking that promotes sharing information, collaborating and learning from others inside and outside the industry
  • Increase in success stories, spurring more serious attention
  • Current generation of leaders who have been exposed to Lean and business improvement during their careers
  • People joining the industry from non-mining backgrounds, bringing new ideas and experiences
  • Extraordinary access to information today, making new ideas readily available
  • Evolution of technology, requiring new ways of thinking and deep understanding of process, in turn, making change skills a requirement rather than a choice

Progress has certainly been made when it comes to Lean in mining, but there’s great opportunity to move beyond the current state. Fortunately, we’re seeing trends heading in the right direction toward a less tools-based approach to a more systems and people-based approach to success.

Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash